In brief - Understand your risks and obligations when working with horses

Businesses operating in the horse industry must be able to identify, assess and control the significant risks around working with horses. To assist, Safe Work Australia has recently issued a guide on managing risks when new and inexperienced workers and others interact with horses, covering practical tips and the legal obligation to provide a safe workplace.

Important guide for helping businesses manage their risks

In June this year, Safe Work Australia (SWA), a statutory agency comprising representatives of Commonwealth and state governments, unions and businesses issued the Guide to managing risks when new and inexperienced persons interact with horses.

The guide seeks to help businesses manage the risks faced by new or inexperienced workers and others when interacting with horses. The others may include members of the public, including those who have paid to engage in horse riding activities, such as horse lessons, equestrian events and recreational trail riding.

The guide complements the Code of Practice for the Horse Industry (October 2009) issued by the Australian Horse Industry Council and the Horse Trail Riding Adventure Activity Standard Guidelines for Dependent Groups issued in August 2010 by the Outdoor Recreation Centre Victoria Inc.

Reducing the high rate of horse-related accidents

The opening line of the guide states "Horses pose a significant safety risk at work".

Consequently, the guide makes some sobering observations. One worker is hospitalised every day in Australia due to a horse-related injury. For every worker injured, another nine non-workers are injured, commonly at workplaces like riding schools, equestrian centres and trail riding businesses.

The guide indicates that between July 2000 to June 2012, there were 98 horse-related deaths - 48% were related to horse riding activity and 74% of the fatalities resulted from a fall from a horse. For injuries, females account for two-thirds of hospital admissions, with those admissions being skewed towards relatively young female participants.

Research shows that horses are a common cause of death and injury on farms. Trail and general horse riding accounted for 80% of those admitted to hospital for a horse-related incident.

Understandably, both the Commonwealth and state employment compensation schemes would like to reduce the number of incidents in the workplace.

Obligation to provide a safe workplace and comply with WHS legislation

The guide provides practical guidance for those operating businesses or undertaking work which involves horses. This is not simply for the farming or agricultural sector, but encompasses workplaces such as riding and equestrian schools and trail-riding businesses.

We note that throughout Australia, there are hundreds of recreational riding businesses, both large and small, offering horse-related activities to members of the public - many of whom have had no experience with horses whatsoever.

The guide reminds those in these industries of their obligations as employers, occupiers and operators to provide a safe workplace in accordance with various Commonwealth and state work health and safety (WHS) laws.

Eliminating risk as far as reasonably practicable

The guide reminds businesses and operators that in accordance with WHS laws, they must, so far as reasonably practicable, take steps to ensure that their employees, volunteers and members of the public are not exposed to health and safety risks while undertaking their activities. This duty entails identifying the hazard and risk presented by an activity and taking reasonable steps to eliminate that risk.

This requires that as far as reasonably practicable, a workplace is free of hazards and staff are properly inducted, trained and supervised.

Identifying risks and implementing measures to control them

The guide encourages the proper identification of the hazard and risk associated with the involvement of horses. In explaining the process of a risk assessment, the guide helpfully identifies the multitude of risks to persons. Many are obvious to a lay person, but perhaps often forgotten when interacting with horses.

It is interesting to see those risks listed in clear language. To those raised on a farm or who have been involved with horses all their life, such hazards would be second nature, but for others, particularly novices, they would not.

The risks identified include poorly maintained equipment, the unpredictable acts of horses, their propensity to be frightened or startled by environmental factors, such as motor vehicles or changes in the weather, and the lack of training of staff. These are all factors that can cause harm.

Horses are herd animals and will interact with the herd. They can become aggressive, flighty and unpredictable. Apart from falls from a horse, a regular cause of injury is being bitten or struck by a horse.

The guide also provides advice on controlling risk, induction and safe work procedures, supervision and instructor competencies, and the selection of appropriate horses. Appendices provide statistics and a guide to additional resources.

Recognising high risk and the possibility of harm and death

Commonwealth and state WHS law places a high burden on employers and occupiers in regard to their activities. Outside of these statutory regimes, injured persons have significant rights of recovery where WHS law has not been complied with or there has been negligence.

The guidelines provide a useful template to assist operators in assessing the hazards and risks of any particular horse-related activity. It helps operators to recognise that these activities are relatively high risk and can result in injuries, even fatalities.

The guidelines also highlight the difficulty for operators in providing horse riding activities for novices or even experienced riders because of the unpredictable nature of horses.

Duty to give adequate warning and make participants aware of their risk

The guide will complement the existing codes and standards for the safe conduct of horse-related activities. However, none of them will make the activity harm free. The industry has a duty to warn participants adequately of those risks.

It is hoped that, within reason, with better education and the development of essential skills, the risk to participants will be reduced, but it cannot be expected that this will ever be a harm-free activity. Participants may recognise this and make their own decisions about participation accordingly.

Claims for compensation and the importance of liability insurance cover

From a civil liability perspective, presently the incident rate of injuries involving this activity remains relatively high. We expect that liability claims for compensation for harm will continue to be pursued both in the employer/employee context and the operator/customer context. In some jurisdictions, liability has been curtailed by legislation, but not entirely excluded.

For operators of horse activities offered to members of the public, it is essential that, for their own financial interest, they maintain adequate liability insurance cover and ensure that their customers read, understand and sign correctly drafted risk warnings and liability waivers.

Safe equipment and qualified staff

Fundamentally as best practice, operators of horse activities need to ensure that they have correct, well-maintained equipment and appropriately qualified and trained staff who can seek to minimise risks to their customers as much as possible, while ensuring that the activity remains a fulfilling and exciting recreational experience.

This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2024.

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