“Positive Change in Rural Industries”: 2018 AgriFutures Rural Woman's Award (SA) Alex Thomas reflects on empowering women and “planting a seed for safety”

By Elizabeth Graham with Alex Thomas

 

Alex Thomas, winner of the 2018 South Australian AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year Award, 2018. Image: Jackie Cooper,  Jack of Hearts Studio

Alex Thomas, winner of the 2018 South Australian AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year Award, 2018. Image: Jackie Cooper, Jack of Hearts Studio

Elizabeth Graham is a student at Deakin University currently volunteering with the Invisible Farmer Project at Museums Victoria. In this guest blog post Elizabeth interviews 2018 winner of the South Australian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, Alex Thomas.

Alex Thomas grew up on Parnaroo Station, a pastoral property in the north-east of South Australia. She owns her own work health and safety consulting business and plans to use the AgriFutures Award to promote her ‘#PlantASeedForSafety’ campaign, spreading awareness on the importance of work health and safety in rural industries and celebrating the important role rural women play in influencing positive change.

In this Q & A Alex talks about the inspiration for her campaign, her connection with the land and agriculture, and the importance of recognising women within the industry.

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Tell us about your connection to agriculture?

Growing up on a remote sheep station, some of my fondest memories are of lying under a Mallee tree - in the dirt - far enough away from the homestead that I couldn’t hear the sound of people, but close enough that Mum wasn’t having a coronary.

I was a School of the Air kid, and I did the majority of my early education from home via HF radio. Mum was my governess, my best friend was the cat and most days I’d 'knocked-off’ from school by around 1pm. Afternoons were for being Dad’s shadow, building cubbies out of stumps and corrugated iron and anything and everything to do with our horses.

Alex in her favourite spot (Porcupine Range, Parnaroo Station, SA. 2008). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex in her favourite spot (Porcupine Range, Parnaroo Station, SA. 2008). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Those years on the Station were idyllic and I literally couldn’t have asked for a better childhood. We didn’t have mains power so obviously went without air conditioning, and time spent in front of the TV was strictly limited to days when it was too hot, too cold or there were too many snakes around to warrant playing outside. Trips in ‘to town’ were a novelty, the prospect of rain was an event, our neighbours were (still are!) our best friends, and at that point in time the only worries I had in life were whether the pet joey would survive the night, or whether I’d finish school in time to go out with Dad.

Alex (sitting next to her teacher, Ron Dare), with her School of the Air class (Port Augusta School of the Air, 1995). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex (sitting next to her teacher, Ron Dare), with her School of the Air class (Port Augusta School of the Air, 1995). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

At 12 years old I was plucked from an incredibly comfortable sense of security and thrust into the world of an all-girls boarding school. Life in Adelaide was completely foreign, which isn’t surprising given how little time I’d spent away from the comfort of the Station. At 13, I remember returning home for an exeat [permission for a temporary absence] to learn that – to my horror – the Station was to be subdivided and sold, and at 15 to hear of my parent’s divorce.

The drought of ’82, the drought of the ‘90’s, spectacularly shitful wool prices and absurd interest rates had had a profound and irreparable impact on my everything - our family, my father’s health, the business, the landscape and of course our stock. I was becoming acutely aware that life on the Station was rapidly slipping from between my fingers and that things would never be the same again.

Year 11 and 12 exams were a haze of uncertainty and confusion, a means to an end before bolting back to the north-east to pursue a job as station hand… which in hindsight, was merely a desperate attempt to rediscover what it meant to ‘go home’. Returning to the north-east (albeit only for a couple of years) was the perfect antidote for a broken heart.

I chased rodeos, I drank rum and I literally fell in love with the cowboy next door. While that relationship wasn’t meant to be, that period in my life reaffirmed my identity, my connection with the land and an unconscious and unyielding desire to eventually ‘give back’.

Alex and her horse (Roxby Downs Pony Club. SA, 2010) Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex and her horse (Roxby Downs Pony Club. SA, 2010) Image supplied: Alex Thomas

The collective impact of drought, Q Fever (as a result of Dad’s work with feral goats), Ross River Virus, diabetes, divorce, heart failure and kidney failure rendered Dad permanently disabled from the age of 56. As the next woman in line after Mum left and his mother passed away, I’ve been caring for Dad in varying capacities since I was around 15 years old.

Sure, there have been some super tough times along the way, but for me – my connection to the land and to agriculture is in the blood. I don’t get to wear jeans and boots every day and I don’t have my Station to go home to, but I still remember how to strain up a fence, how to muster stock and how the land sings after even the tiniest trickle of rain. I’m eternally grateful for the sheer tenacity of my parents in providing my siblings and I with such a sublime start to life, and while Dad’s illness really, really sucks; its equipped me with an innate sense of purpose – to engage and empower rural women – and to improve the health and safety of those in rural industries.

How did you come to apply for the Rural Women’s Award?

I remember sitting in the Hilux with Dad – somewhere between Whyalla and Port Augusta – talking about the wild contrast between the culture of work health and safety in mining, versus that of rural industries. Given the decline of Dad’s health due to his work in agriculture, the impact it had had on my family and the need for a different approach (i.e. less emphasis on box ticking); we both agreed that while rural men spend the majority of their time up to their necks in grain and sheep shit, it was (is!) rural women who are the backbone of rural industries and therefore in a fabulous position to influence change. This prompted some excitable Googling before landing on what was then the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation’s website in hot pursuit of applying for the 2015 Rural Women’s Award (and later the 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award).

Alex and her dad at her 30th birthday (2017). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex and her dad at her 30th birthday (2017). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

My initial project – given that I was then based in Port Lincoln, looking after Dad and working with various fisheries – was to travel to Norway to:

a) get some street credibility amongst fishers,

b) understand ‘what good safety looks like’ in the context of fishing,

c) cross-pollinate ideas between South Australia and Norway, and

d) facilitate a discussion with key stakeholders from the fishing industry (with emphasis on the inclusion of women in fishing).

I didn’t win the Award that year, however I was fortunate enough to be named a State Finalist and despite the outcome thought ‘bugger it’ – and travelled to Norway anyway.

“Bloody Big Boat in Norway” (The Fjords, near Ålesund, Norway, 2015). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

“Bloody Big Boat in Norway” (The Fjords, near Ålesund, Norway, 2015). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Claire Webber, a prominent woman in fishing. (Port Lincoln Marina. SA, 2014). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Claire Webber, a prominent woman in fishing. (Port Lincoln Marina. SA, 2014). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Some years (blood, sweat and tears) later, a sociologist by the name of Dr Kate Brooks picked up my very anecdotal research report and offered me a contract to work for her, and in turn the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. Through this work I learnt an enormous amount about the socio-ecologicial influencers of culture, and how these affect a fisher’s attitudes and beliefs towards work health and safety. I had always known there was a much, much bigger picture beyond what I’d been taught throughout my career in work health and safety, and thus emerged the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign and my second attempt at applying for the Rural Women’s Award!

Alex and Dr Kate Brooks in Carnarvon, WA, 2018. Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex and Dr Kate Brooks in Carnarvon, WA, 2018. Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Do you know any of the past winners of the Award or is there someone in particular who inspired you to apply for the Award?

Whilst I’ve been very fortunate to have known many, many awe-inspiring rural women, I owe my inspiration to my Mum and Dad.

Mum for her tenacity, resilience and vivaciousness whilst wearing a million-and-one different ‘hats’ during our time on the Station; and Dad for his relentless strength, kindness and support, particularly enduring what has at times seemed like an unscrupulous amount of adversity.

Having won the 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award (SA), your goal is to establishe the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign using the bursary from the Award. How do you envision implementing this campaign will begin to overcome some of the issues rural men and women face within the industry?

At the moment, most of the chatter about work health and safety in rural industries is dominated by the voice of the Regulator, and is largely focused on fatalities, penalties, paperwork and ‘compliance’. Unfortunately, this approach hasn’t achieved much in the way of actually reducing the number of people hurt, nor does it send a compelling message to those actually doing the work to change ‘the way things have always been done’.

By contrast, most of the time – in any business – things go right (!!!) and people don’t get hurt at work. For example farmers and fishers are innate engineers, which means they’re particularly good at designing out risk. In addition, farmers and fishers really, really care about their people; which often means they’ve got a greater sense of accountability for their wellbeing. Technology means that equipment is increasingly safer and people really are making good decisions about how to manage risk –  they’re just not that great at talking about it! Or at sharing those invaluable, life-saving learnings with the broader industry.

I believe social media (being the effective communication tool that it is) provides rural industries with an opportunity to find its voice and to amplify the positive, rather than being disempowered by the negative. The success of the #PlantASeedForSafety campaign will be based on how much interaction and reach it attracts. Likes. Shares. Comments. Tagging other rural men and women in posts. More talk about industry specific solutions. Less about ‘box-ticking’. The opportunities are endless!

Aside from the social media project, what do you hope winning this Award will achieve?

In addition to the #PlantASeedForSafety social media campaign and by virtue of the Award, I have committed to the following objectives:

  • increasing the confidence and the self-esteem of rural women, particularly in ‘taking the lead’ and influencing positive change;

  • providing an online platform for rural women to support one another and to share ideas on what ‘good work health and safety’ looks like in the context of rural industries;

  • shifting the focus of work health and safety in rural industries away from disempowering, compliance-driven safety information and towards industry-driven, practical solutions (that actually have the capacity to save lives!);

  • supporting more rural women to take on leadership roles in rural industries, and ultimately;

  • preventing people from getting hurt at work in rural industries.

(Dream big, right?!)

Alex facilitating a workshop for Spencer Gulf & West Coast Prawn Fisherman’s Association. (Port Lincoln. SA. 2016). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex facilitating a workshop for Spencer Gulf & West Coast Prawn Fisherman’s Association. (Port Lincoln. SA. 2016). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

How will the physical program or safety tools work in conjunction with the social media campaign?

Given the current emphasis on producing safety paperwork in order to be ‘compliant’ (I mean let’s be honest, how often does a piece of paper ever prevent someone from getting stuck in a piece of machinery?!) – the focus of the resources I develop will be on empowering farmers and fishers with practical, common sense guidance on how to improve the way they manage life-threatening risks in their businesses.

For example:

  • Speed humps down a drive way: waaaaay more effective at slowing someone down than putting up a speed limit sign.

  • Putting a guard around an auger: far more likely to prevent someone from becoming entangled than giving someone once off pep talk on how to use it.

  • Putting a hard cover over a well: will almost certainly prevent someone from falling in it, and;

  • Fencing around a homestead will absolutely reduce the chance of children getting in the way of heavy machinery.

(It’s not rocket science is it?! )

The link between the resources and the social media campaign will come in the form of regular posts that communicate some of the key solutions to those who follow the campaign.

You focus on the physicality of changing and improving compliance with work health and safety regulations, about these being active processes rather than solely bureaucratic ones. Does your own experience working on a farm as well as your father’s injuries influence this?

Absolutely! In addition to Dad’s injuries, when I myself went to work on a station after finishing boarding school, I took short cuts. I rode motorbikes without a helmet on. I took guards off equipment ‘just to make life easier’ and I shimmied up and down windmills without using a harness. Was it dangerous? Yes. Am I human? Yes. Do I think now, that I could have done things better? Absolutely!!! Nobody ever wants another person to get hurt (or equally themselves), but an improvement in work health and safety in rural industries requires a change in the way we think about risk. Thirty years ago, nobody wore seatbelts … and today? We do it without even thinking about it. It all takes time… but if we focus on starting good conversations, supporting each other and fixing the big stuff (i.e. guards on augers) then I think we’re headed in the right direction.

What were the major motivating factors that inspired you to become involved in the industry?

It really depends on which industry you’re referring to!

My profession is in work health and safety, my roots are in pastoralism, my focus is on rural industries and my work spans across all of the above, plus many others.  

I’ve often asked myself why it is that I’ve chosen possibly one of the hardest combinations of work possible (talking ‘safety’ to farmers and fishers can be like trying to sell ice to Eskimos!), and I think it comes down to three distinct factors:

  1. Watching my Dad’s health deteriorate and the impact that it’s had on my family (and wanting to prevent like-scenarios);

  2. A big piece of my heart is, and always will be, on the station (hence I want to remain connected to the industry), and;

  3. I’m infatuated with improvement.

You have your own business that focuses on safety and sustainability, are you still involved in the farming industry in a more traditional sense or more as a consultant to improve work health and safety standards within the industry as a whole?

As I’m sure you can probably imagine, based on the current stigma around work health and safety in rural industries (i.e. penalties, paperwork and ‘box-ticking’), engaging a work health and safety consultant is not usually at the top of a farmer or a fisher’s list of priorities.

Alex with Greg Palmer, a prawn fisher, (On board the Millennium III. Port Lincoln (SA, 2014). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

Alex with Greg Palmer, a prawn fisher, (On board the Millennium III. Port Lincoln (SA, 2014). Image supplied: Alex Thomas

With the exception of a few (wonderful) paid clients here and there, my involvement with rural industries is nearly all donated. I love working one-on-one with farmers and fishers, however I feel as though as a consultant I’m more able to add value on a larger scale by facilitating groups, presenting at industry forums and influencing at a strategic level. I am absolutely playing the long game here, which is why it’s fortunate that I have consulting work in other industries.  

(I often spend my afternoons in front of my 17,125 screens with phone calls coming out my ears wishing I was still in working in ag in a more traditional sense, however I’m a firm believer that this is exactly where I am meant to be and what I’m meant to be doing!)

How important are connections with your local community and the wider world?

My connection with my former local, rural communities is such an enormous part of my identity that I simply wouldn’t – and couldn’t – be who I am, or set out to achieve what I want to achieve, without it.

It’s been over fifteen years since we sold the Station and even now I find it really challenging to know and feel ‘where home is’. Metropolitan life just doesn’t have the same sense of community that living in a rural area does, but I’m hoping a compromise, shifting to the Adelaide Hills, will be just the ticket!

Dad has always taught us to ‘never forget who you are and where you came from’ and I think my work with rural industries reflects that. That, in addition to the fact that my house is FULL of station-related paraphernalia and a somewhat unhealthy number of photos that feature horses…

Alex with her horse. Image: Amy Rowsell from  Amy Rowsell Photography

Alex with her horse. Image: Amy Rowsell from Amy Rowsell Photography

You have a wide range of experience in diverse facets of the agriculture, do you feel that having this range of experience can be used to overcome the issues facing men and women in agriculture?

I think diversity – in any situation – is the single most important ingredient for combating a myriad of different issues. ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’, right?! It may seem like a buzz phrase, but it’s a bloody important one! Diversity challenges our unconscious biases, our fixation on remaining comfortable and educates and influences us about how to evolve and be innovative. It’s challenging, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

How have you overcome the issues that working within such a male-dominated space creates?

It really depends on context.

I’ve had some fabulous experiences working alongside men, and yet like many women, I’ve had some very, very ordinary ones too. One experience in particular landed me in some seriously hot water, ‘victim of the boys club’ style. Key learnings from that magnificent catastrophe were a) never to work with a business whose values weren’t truly aligned with my own, and b) to always consider whether walking away or laughing something off is actually condoning poor behaviour, rather than preventing it. Early intervention is key. Sometimes as women we really do need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to speak up, and to allow people and process to support us… rather than trying to deal with it all on our own.

All of that said, I’m a much better, smarter operator now because of that experience, so I’m thankful. (They can’t allllll be good, now can they!)

How does being a woman play into the outcomes you hope to achieve and the desire for this project to be female-centric?

The number of work-related fatalities occurring in agriculture, fisheries and forestry is around eight times higher than any other industry Australia-wide, and 93% of those fatalities are men (Traumatic Injury Fatalities (TIF) Dataset – Safe Work Australia, 2016).

In my experience, the clear advantages rural women have in helping to lower these statistics include the following:

  • Rural women are often – literally – the closest other person to the work being done, and therefore are in the best position to initiate a conversation about work health and safety.

  • Rural women know their businesses, their partners and the workplace better than anyone else does, and are informed (or if not, are in a fabulous position to be informed!) on what could be improved, and how.

  • Rural women are often the ‘new kid on the block’ in family businesses; offering a set of eyes and some much-needed diversity, particularly to those who have been owned and operated by generations of men before them (and have been ‘doing it this way for years’).

  • Rural women often bring experience and knowledge from other industries and workplaces (that perhaps haven’t been ‘doing it this way for years’).

  • Rural women are instinctively more risk averse and therefore more inclined to highlight the dangers and seek to do things in a safer way.

  • Rural women are at times (not always!) less able to do physically demanding work, and therefore are more likely to suggest an alternative (safer, less physically demanding) method.

  • Rural women are innate carers and in my experience are more often inclined to consider work health and safety.

  • Rural women are often more vulnerable and more likely to be ‘left carrying the load’ should their partner be seriously injured or killed at work, which incentivises their involvement.

  • Rural women are often responsible for most of the administrative functions in a family business – which is not to suggest that work health and safety in its most effective form is administrative – but that rural women are more likely to have contemplated the notion of improving work health and safety (even if it is in the form of policy, procedures and paperwork). 

  • Rural women are connected to the communities around them. They listen to what their neighbours are doing, the grower group’s position on work health and safety and how ‘Trevor shouldn’t be reaping in the heat’. They’re ‘in the know’ and they’re fabulous communicators, and therefore in a great position to start a conversation about work health and safety.

  • Rural women are resilient, brave and intuitive. They wear many hats and are the cornerstones of rural communities … they’re just amazing!

Is there any particular message you would like to pass on to other women within the agricultural industry?

1. Understand your power. YOU are the expert on your partner, your business, your community and your industry. Change is already happening. Be curious, connected and confident in your role to lead change.

2. Focus on fixing the big stuff! Don’t waste your time and money creating mountains of paperwork that doesn’t necessarily add any value. You know what it is that doesn’t feel right about the way the work is done, and I know you’re already well aware that some things could be done better… safer. Take action on things that might actually save a life.

3. #PlantASeedForSafety! Talk to your husband/partner/family about what needs to be done to save lives. Your workers. Your neighbour. Your kids. The tall poppy in the district. The industry association. Start a conversation that will eventually make it ‘not cool’ to be unsafe, or to take short cuts.

Thirty years ago, nobody wore seatbelts … and today? We do it without even thinking about it. Start a conversation about What’s working well, what’s not working well, and what could be done better … safer. #PlantASeedForSafety (And blokes? #SaveALifeListenToYourWife!)

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