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Health and safety in shearing

by Nicky Barton (WorkSafe NZ)

THIS profile is part of a seven-part series from WorkSafe New Zealand sharing the health and safety approaches taken by the grand finalists of the 2021 FMG Young Farmer of the Year competition.

For the next seven weeks WorkSafe will share a profile and short video about each of the finalists and how they incorporate health and safety into their work, from a dairy farm manager to an agribusiness banker.

“Industry campaigns and growing professionalism are driving awareness of health and safety among shearers,” says national FMG Young Farmer of the Year finalist Joseph Watts. Yet, he still sees plenty of room for improvement.

Joseph, from Waipukurau, will represent East Coast in the national competition.

He began his rural career as a shearer, having completed a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise degree and then played squash professionally for several years.

He went on to gain a Graduate Diploma in Rural Studies from Massey University and is now a Technical Field Representative for PGG Wrightson as well as farming some beef cattle on a 12 hectare site at Waipukurau, with his partner, vet Lucy Dowsett.

Even though he is no longer shearing full-time, Joseph still likes to keep his hand in, doing some shearing in his spare time and helping out mates and following shearing social media pages.

In 2018, Federated Farmers and the New Zealand Shearing Contractors Association, with support from ACC and WorkSafe, joined forces to implement the Tahi Ngatahi programme to improve safety and performance in the country’s woolsheds.

Joseph says he has started to see the positive impact of the programme in the industry.

Having been a professional sportsperson, Joseph was always aware of the importance of eating well, keeping hydrated, warming up and doing stretches before physical work and taking steps to avoid sprains and strains.

Information about health, safety and wellbeing for people working in the sector, including techniques, stretching and strengthening and nutrition, is available through the Tahi Ngatahi website. Woolshed workers, farmers and shearing contractors can also sign up for online learning through the page – at tahingatahi.co.nz

“There’s good information available and I’m seeing awareness growing steadily,” says Joseph.

“People are starting to view shearing as a long-term professional career, where you can operate and compete at a high level. They are starting to recognise that if they want to do it long term, they need to look after themselves.

“The industry has always tended to put the new shearers with the experienced guys, to learn good techniques from them, but people are taking that a lot more seriously. I see a lot more sheep in slings now, to avoid muscle strains, and people doing stretches at the beginning and end of the day. I tend to do some stretches and go fairly easy for the first 15 or so minutes, while my body warms up.

“I think people have always recognised that if you keep your equipment sharp, that makes shearing easier, but there has been less understanding of how using blunt equipment will affect your body in the future. There are still those who can’t be bothered to put the effort into good maintenance but there is definitely more awareness around that.

“You also see a growing number of shearers bringing their own shearing machines to sheds — to make sure equipment is in the best shape for shearing. I was helping out at a shed recently with three young shearers, all in their 20s, and they had all their own machines.”

Joseph says hygiene is another issue that is gradually improving but could still be better.

“I was what you could call a ‘tidy kid’ and always very aware about good hand-washing practices, especially before eating,” he says.

“When I started shearing, I just had to get over that because there were sheds that literally had no hand-washing facilities. You have to eat, to keep your energy up and you wouldn’t want to use your water bottle to wash because there was nowhere to refill it, so I would be handling food with my hands covered with grease, wool and worse. That is getting better, but every shed should have running water, liquid soap and paper towels to dry your hands.”

Joseph also sees awareness about nutrition growing.

“It’s very demanding work. People have always been pretty good about keeping hydrated but when I was shearing, a lot of people lived on junk — literally packet chips, processed stuff and takeaways.

“But there’s a lot of industry advice about that now and shearing companies are working to educate people about eating better. Some very high performing shearers work with nutritionists – and that approach filters down. You see a lot on shearing and social media about eating well and different electrolytes and it’s really good to see those discussions.

“Again, my background means I’ve always been aware of the importance of a good diet. I tend to eat a balance of meat, vegetables and carbs. If I’m shearing, I might make extra pasta to take with me or a healthy sandwich and nuts and grains.

“I allow myself treats too — I take the view that if I’m eating good stuff, I can have a few lollies. I think if you have a good diet, water is sufficient but I will supplement with electrolytes sometimes.”

While shearing full-time, Joseph was fortunate to escape serious injury when he was knocked unconscious by the spinning bucket of an old wool press.

“I did notice things were starting to get better around the time I left shearing, about four years ago, largely due to awareness about the new regulations coming in,” he says.

“That included replacing old machinery, like wool presses.”

The FMG Young Farmer of the Year Grand Final will take place in Christchurch, July 1-3.

SHEAR SAFETY: National FMG Young Farmer of the Year finalist Joseph Watts from Waipukurau. He will represent East Coast in the finals next month. Joseph sees room for improvement when it comes to work safety for shearers. Picture supplied