With farming one of the most dangerous occupations in Australia, working as a QA and WHS manager at Koala Farms in Queensland is not without its challenges. According to Christine Stiles, getting to know people on a personal level is key. She talks about creating a positive safety culture amongst the farm's 178 employees.
My role in Koala Farms is to oversee food safety and quality and manage workplace health and safety, so it involves consulting and providing recommendations, preparing for audits, fostering a positive safety culture and encouraging each person to make safety a value so we all go home the same way we came to work. This means I am out and about in our paddocks, observing and talking about processes, people and equipment across the farms – from the preparation, planting and harvesting areas right through to packing and transport.
Located in the heart of the Lockyer Valley in Queensland, Koala Farms (which spans over 1,500 acres) distributes a range of vegetables to major supermarkets all along the east coast of Australia.
What makes the farm unique, is the value we place on innovation. We’re always looking for better alternatives for our business, employees and the environment. We have adopted several sustainable practices, including things like solar-powered laser lights to prevent ducks from landing in our dams and produce fields, without causing harm to the birds or environment; and recycling our cardboard, paper, trickle tape, tyres, scrap metal, pipes, chemical drums and soft plastics.
Forklifts have played a major role in growing the business as they have been used for many years at Koala Farms – operations would have moved much slower without the use of forklifts, which is an absolute essential today.
The farm utilises four electric and eight petrol forklifts, which are used for conveying trays of seedlings, transporting to and from packing rooms, cold rooms and onto transport. We also have 24 tractor forklifts, which are used in the paddocks while planting and harvesting, delivering empty pallets to the harvesters, pallets of seedlings to planters, collecting pallets stacked with crates and boxes of produce, and taking them back to the cold rooms.
A couple of challenges in our environment stem from the surfaces we work on. Our forklifts drive across dirt roads – rather difficult when it has rained for days or weeks. Some forklifts are inside/outside, driving over wet, muddy and slippery surfaces in the packing and logistics areas, and our tractor forklifts risk getting bogged in the field after heavy rainfall.
The experience of our operators helps to deal with and overcome these issues, and they are very good at communication and teamwork, so we don’t seem to have too many delays from these issues.
My main concerns for safety are around people in the vicinity of forklift operations, and our forklift drivers are excellent operators who have pedestrian safety as a priority.
All workers are trained in personal safety around forklifts.
The crew leaders and I conduct regular walk-throughs to observe forklift operations, receive feedback from operators, and monitor and discuss current or emerging risks.
We also have regular toolbox talks around forklift safety, which are more informal training sessions that usually focuses on a current or relevant safety item, say, forklifts and pedestrians.
During the talk, we ask workers for any observations and suggestions from their perspective, to ensure we are looking at any risks and hazards from all perspectives, not just the boss or WHS person.
The most challenging part of my job is probably the fact that farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in Australia, so this means encouraging every worker to be on the lookout for any risk in their area that we haven’t covered, along with monitoring the ones that we have.
The most rewarding part of my job is the tremendous group of people I work with – each one full of knowledge and experience in their sphere – be it nursery, prep-work, irrigation, planting, harvesting, packing, logistics or mechanics.
I believe in getting to know people on a personal level and having one-on-one conversations about safety in the workplace and their home life goes a long way to helping people “own” their own safety, and to realise the impact that risky behaviour (or a moment of inattention) may have on theirs or their family’s home life.
The key to establishing a positive safety culture? Regular walk-throughs, obtaining feedback, training and encouraging people to think about the consequences – not just the risk – but the real consequence of losing the use of a finger, an arm or a foot – all play a role.
Farming by numbers - fast facts about Koala Farms
Our nursery team produces well over half a million seedlings each week
Our planting team plants over 40 million seedlings each year
Our harvesting team picks over 30 million individual produce items each year
Our packing team can pack up to 1.08 million cos lettuce in 1 day
Our mechanic workshop services and maintains over 300 pieces of farm equipment, including forklifts, tractors, trucks, harvesters, graders, 4WDs, quad bikes, packing machinery and more
Our production team lays and removes around 2,560 km of trickle watering tape each year