Farmer shares battle for life, raising awareness of fatigue and burnout in rural jobs

Farmer shares battle for life, raising awareness of fatigue and burnout in rural jobs

Cambridge farmer Owen Gullery almost drowned in the effluent pond on his farm, turning his life upside down.

On he night of the accident in October 2011, Gullery had a cow that he knew would have problems calving, so he went to check on her late at night.

“We had a three-pond effluent system and I knew she was in the paddock by the dry pond, but it was a ‘pea-soupy’ kind of night with fog everywhere. By the time I got to her it was 11 o’clock. I drove the tractor up the side of the pond where I thought she was, went over the bank and before I knew it, the cab was filling up with effluent.”

“I’d driven into the wrong pond because I was so tired.”

An ACC-funded study for Farmstrong, a rural wellbeing programme for farmers and growers to help them “live well to farm well”, shows 58 per cent of recently injured farmers linked their accidents to stress associated with farm work. A quarter of them said it was a major factor.

Exhaustion, lack of sleep, the stresses of farming, being isolated from friends and family, and being unable to take a break all add to the risks that a farmer or farm worker will have an accident, the research shows.

Gullery went into a panic as he fought for his life. “I couldn’t get anything to open. I ended up gasping for breath in the last couple hundred mls of cab space, managed to kick the back window open, grabbed the blade on the back of the tractor and hauled myself out. It was pretty scary. I ended up sitting on the bank bawling my eyes out.”

That near-fatal accident has changed his approach to life and work. Now he’s alerting other farmers to the dangers of fatigue and burnout. “That accident was 100 per cent my fault and avoidable. That’s why this stuff’s worth talking about.”

Gullery contract milks 480 cows on a dairy farm near Cambridge. He’s been in the industry 20 years and loves “the daily challenges of farming – good and bad”.

“I was your typical ‘I’m gonna take on the world’ guy, working full-on hours. I wanted to make as much money as I could, bank every cent so I could buy a farm. That drove me to work 200 to 300 days in a row without a break.”

“I only had one staff member when I actually needed two, but I was trying to save money. I was busy on all fronts. But I thought, ‘It’s my time. I’m in my prime. I’ll go as hard as I can’. I was working from 4 in the morning till 8 at night most days.”

Last year, 22,796 farm-related injury claims were accepted, coming at a cost of $84 million to help people recover. That is over 60 farmers getting injured every day.
In the past five years, ACC has spent more than $383 million on farm-related injuries with the cost last year being the highest from this period.

Farmer shares battle for life, raising awareness of fatigue and burnout in rural jobs

An ACC-funded study for Farmstrong, a rural wellbeing programme, shows 58 per cent of recently injured farmers linked their accident to stress associated with farm work. Photo / Danielle Zollickhofer

ACC workplace safety head Virginia Burton-Konia says all farmers need to prioritise their wellbeing because many injuries are preventable.

She says: “Farmers spend their lives growing our food and milk and helping our economy, but they’re not great at looking after themselves. It’s important for farmers, to take a moment to think about what they are about to do and think about what could go wrong to prevent injury.”

Following his accident, Gullery employed part-time help. He took his first break of the year and scheduled two afternoons off a week.

“We changed from being prepared to do anything just to own a farm to concentrating on being a stable, secure, happy family – no matter what it means in terms of farm ownership. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but that’s what happens when you see your life flash before your eyes.”

He says he could’ve easily not gone home that night and never wants anything like that to happen again. “While farm ownership and herd ownership are great goals to have, they were no longer my priority. My priority was being there for my family and staying fit and health and a good head space.”

To keep fit, he plays tennis and cycles, and coaches his kids’ rugby. He wants to share his story to help other farmers avoid injury.

“In the dairy industry we often talk about cows and grass, but I reckon there’s a whole area that’s largely untapped – people’s ability to cope physically and mentally. I think if people were in a better space, staff turnover wouldn’t be as high and properties would do better. I’ve learnt that spending time off farm and remaining fit and healthy are actually very good for the business.”

“Farming can be hard yakka. You’ve simply got to have down time to stay healthy and safe. You need staff to enable that so instead of stretching it with part timers, we now have three full-timers and that keeps everyone happy. Sure, it might cost me an extra 20 grand a year, but that’s insignificant in the scheme of your life and relationships.”

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