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Safety and efficiency go hand-in-hand for Victorian fruit growers

Mitchell McNab on his family's property in Ardmona, Victoria. Picture: Supplied

Content in partnership with WorkSafe Victoria.

For fifth-generation apple and pear grower Mitchell McNab, doing everything he can to ensure the safety of each person working on his farm has been a long-standing priority.

With the joint challenges of labour shortages and continuing to improve the efficiency and productivity of the Ardmona family business, McNab Orchards, he says establishing best practice workplace safety systems have been essential to the 112-year-old operation's ongoing growth and success.

"Safety and productivity do go hand in hand, they're closely linked," said Mr McNab, who's also the chair of Fruit Growers Victoria (FGV) and a former Nuffield Scholar. "If you can improve workplace practices and make sure workers are safe and well trained it gives them the opportunity to work confidently and more productively, and earn more, and it allows us to secure workers and retain them.

"There are simple things - like the correct use of ladders or switching to picking platforms to prevent falls - that help to reduce the risk of workplace injuries but also increase productivity while making it a more enjoyable place for people to work."

This link between safety and efficiency is something FGV along with WorkSafe Victoria is encouraging farms of all sizes to take a close look at.

FGV says growers across its network have seen improvements in operational efficiency after implementing safety measures ranging from practices like worker induction systems and daily safety meetings, to larger investments in machinery and equipment.

Mr McNab said any improvements to keep on-farm workers safe can have a positive impact on the success of an operation.

"You don't need to necessarily be investing in the latest technology or packaging systems - safety doesn't have to break the bank," he said.

"Smaller scale changes to the picking and packing processes can have just as much of an impact on operations as buying the most advanced tractors or picking platforms."

Andrew Plunkett, owner of Plunkett Orchards, said that while his business invests in new technology to modernise their operations, it's often the most basic measures that can have the biggest effect.

Mr Plunkett said his business' inductions for staff were probably the most important part of the process and something they were always improving.

"It's important that we continually update these inductions to make sure we have everything covered, from wearing a seatbelt on a forklift to making sure everyone is wearing helmets when they need them," he said.

"It's standard stuff, but it's always these basic things you haven't thought about that catch you out."

Picking platforms in use at Plunkett Orchards.

Plunkett Orchards' strategies for improving safety while also increasing efficiency have included modernising the packing shed, working to minimise the amount of people inside and reducing noise, as well as simple changes like well-marked pedestrian crossings to allow people to move around the orchard more easily and safely.

J.K Anderson & Sons Orchards owner Jake Anderson agreed that consistent and ongoing training was vital.

"On a picker's first day we work on their skills individually because we know it takes at least one full season for someone to understand the basics and feel comfortable with their work," he said.

"We also make sure our experienced workers are given refreshers because even the most experienced pickers might have gaps in their knowledge."

Mr Anderson said updating equipment, such as moving from heavy steel ladders to light aluminium ones, with more stable frames, had improved both pickers' confidence as well as his own confidence that his staff were safer.

The business has also introduced a new computer system to improve chemical output efficiency while also boosting safety. The system identifies the type, amount, time and location of chemical usage across the orchard, allowing staff to identify recently-sprayed sections and direct pickers to areas with a low risk of harm from chemical exposure.

While many events were outside a farmer's control, safety is one area they can easily plan for, said WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Narelle Beer.

"Putting safety planning first will not only keep yourself, your workers and your loved ones safe, but will also help you get through the busy times more efficiently and with less stress," said Ms Beer.

Mr McNab urged growers to take the time to examine the operations of their businesses and identify areas ripe for improvement.

"Stand back and take an objective look at how you're doing things," he said. "Is it best practice? Is it something that poses a risk to workers or to yourself when you're working in the business, and is there a better and safer way to do it? If so, what steps do I need to take to get to that point."

Victorian farmers can find safety support for their operation at www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/agriculture

Content in partnership with WorkSafe Victoria.