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Featuring the crocodile business in the Northern Territory, this seminar shows the innovative techniques used to reduce the risk from the hazards unique to this industry.

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The Northern Territory crocodile industry is a source of quality crocodile skins for the high end fashion markets in Europe, USA and Asia.
With a highly complex supply network working in Australia’s harshest and most remote environments, successfully protecting worker’s health and safety requires a sophisticated balance of conservation and environmental concerns with animal husbandry, commercial imperatives, and cultural interests.

This seminar outlines the different types of hazards faced by workers within the supply chains and networks of the Northern Territory crocodile industry, and how innovative developments in safe work methods has kept the number of serious incidents to a minimum over the past 10 years.

The video also highlights how incentive driven conservation has increased the wild crocodile population numbers from an estimated 5000 in the 1970s to over 100,000 today.

Who is this presentation for?

Business managers, especially anyone involved with work in challenging environments, and anyone working in the agricultural and livestock sector.

About the presenter

Speakers in the video are:

  • Amber Sayers, Senior Workplace Safety Inspector, NT Worksafe,
  • Tom Nichols, Senior Wildlife Ranger, Parks and Wildlife Commission NT
  • Mick Burns, Owner, Darwin Crocodile Farm
  • Lisa Trahair, Darwin Crocodile Farm Work Health and Safety Advisor

(Sombre country music plays)

AMBER SAYERS:

The croc industry is probably quite unique because it has so many networks involved in the final product, being the skin. So you’ve got the ones that go out into the wild and collect eggs, then you’ve got the people who care for those eggs when they’re back at the farm. You’ve got the air industry, the helicopter pilots, things like that. So all these places need to be able to communicate effectively to ensure that they all stay safe in that environment.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

In the early days, it was indiscriminate shooting. They used to shoot the crocodiles for skins. It roughly stopped around about 1974, actually. That’s when they became a protected animal and it was believed to be only roughly around about 5,000 crocodiles left in the wild.

 

MICK BURNS:

It was definitely all about the shooting and skinning and exporting of wild... what they call sort of trophy skins or wild harvest skins and the market’s very, very different to that now and it was that hunting that drove the numbers down to being almost extinct and many of a small biomass, so it’s not like there were many big crocs around at that time.

 

MICK BURNS:

Running or owning a crocodile farm in Australia is a relatively new business. It’s something that’s come very much from a cottage industry and now it’s developed into a quite substantial industry and we think we’ve got quite a bit of development still to go and that’s all the base - on the back - of what’s been a reasonably successful conservation program.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

The crocodiles were a protected animal. They were on Appendix I under CITES, so therefore they could not be utilised in any way whatsoever. Once the crocodile farms were opened through the government themselves, they had a management plan, which is what they intended to do with crocodiles. They were dropped from Appendix I to Appendix II. So this enabled the croc farms to utilise, under a managed program, utilise the crocodiles and they were allowed to utilise them for skins and other products.

 

MICK BURNS:

And the Territory Government obviously puts together a management plan and it sends it down to the Federal Government. Then the Federal Government’s got to ratify that, so there’s two management plans. One of them’s a trade management plan, which has to be signed off and that’s linked in with CITES, which is the trade in endangered species. And the second thing is just a management plan that actually deals with managing crocodiles in the community up here and the industry has really grown and it’s really developed and it’s very much more mature now than what it was and what it has been. And I think there’s great potential for a lot of really positive community impacts coming out.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

And I can remember when I first started, it was a matter of trying to bring crocodiles back to an abundant number, ‘cause there wasn’t as many around.

 

MICK BURNS:

The incentive-driven conservation model has worked and worked extremely well, where we now have crocodiles back to almost the pre-shooting days, certainly at almost carrying capacity.

 

(Banjo music plays)

 

TOM NICHOLS:

Parks and Wildlife Commission can be extremely proud in the fact that they’ve really brought the crocodiles back through their management program and the work they’ve done on crocodiles from extinction to what we have now under very abundant numbers, up to that 100,000-plus. And the utilisation as far as making the crocodile worth money has proved to be a very successful stint.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

The habitat is being kept by... in Indigenous areas and also by station owners, where it could have been probably utilised for other things before the crocodile industry started, so there’s a great connection between the government, who runs the rules for the crocodiles themselves because they are still a protected animal under CITES, and then you have the industry itself which has a great communication together. But there’s always improvement and they’re forever trying to get that improvement and that’s why they have a review on the crocodile plans every so many years and this comes up reviewed by the scientist and then also together in liaison with the crocodile industry, so that everything can work in better and also safer for the animal themselves and also for the people working and utilising that industry.

 

(Banjo music continues)

 

TOM NICHOLS:

As far as the crocodiles go, we did centre-driven conservation. It’s proven successful in the fact that for Indigenous land and also station land is to keep crocodile habitat the way it is, so that you’re not ruin it because there’s now a money form. And it’s bringing money into communities, into stations where they’re providing jobs and workers for people in those areas and the croc farms themselves and you’ve still got a tourist industry which just thrives on crocodiles, so it’s all one great, big circle, which has proven to be quite successful to this day.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

OK, so, basically, our eggs, you know, are brought in by an external provider who supplies us with eggs that are harvested in the wild and they come to us and obviously we grow them out for the rest of the stage.

 

MICK BURNS:

The eggs are collected from, primarily, about 60-70% are from Aboriginal land. The other 30-40% are from cattle stations up across the north.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

And they just don’t have enough breeding stock on the farms themselves, so that’s why they catch ‘em out of the wild. And it’s proved to be so successful that it hasn’t put a dent in the population.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

We also are heavily involved with the conservation management of crocodiles that are brought in and those crocodiles become part of our breeding stock on this farm. So then we obviously produce eggs from those particular crocodiles that are added to our stock.

 

MICK BURNS:

The captive breeders produce a certain volume of eggs, but when I go back to this incentive-driven conservation model, it’s the fact that we go out there and we collect the eggs that gets all of the royalty money and the rewards go back to the communities and it, in turn, incentivises the communities to look after the habitat and manage the buffalo, where they eat the grasses, you know, in the nesting areas and the likes. Part and parcel of that incentive-driven model is the fact that the farms commit to going out and collecting from the wild. There’s no question that you can get cheaper eggs and quite good eggs from the farm. You know, you’re protected from adverse weather events and the likes, but consistent with this incentive-driven conservation model is that we’ve got to get these benefits out to the communities. There’s got to be as many if not more positives to negatives to tolerating and putting up with crocs in the wild.

 

(Didgeridoo and drum music plays)

 

MICK BURNS:

So, we actually go out. We collect the eggs from the wild and it’s a different risk profile or a different hazard profile to what, you know, working in a retail shop in the CBD of Darwin is. And there’s a range of risks, you know, you’ve got the helicopter risk, you’ve got the crocodile risk, you’ve got temperatures, you’ve got airborne diseases, you’ve got waterborne diseases, you’ve got snakes, you’ve got the lot.

 

MICK BURNS:

So the training process is something that’s very much on the job. Teaching people from the very start what little signs they look for and then working their way through. Part of that training process is that everyone starts on the dry nests and they just sort of gradually increase the, you know, the risk factors and the difficulties and the likes, and so we’re very conscious in talking to staff all the way through that as we go. And no one that works for us actually does any eggs on their own until they’ve done a full season collecting with experienced operators and we’re starting to develop up now a really good base of experienced collectors. And that’s where we’ve probably been lucky, that we’ve got half a dozen blokes now that have done this for six and eight and ten years. You know, there’s no macho attitudes out there. You know, if people don’t do nests, they don’t do nests and it’s not mentioned again.

 

MICK BURNS:

Over most recent years, we’ve done a lot of work with CASA, who are obviously primarily focused on the aviation risk, whereas I’m very focused on the overall risks. So we can’t have it that we’ve got a safe environment from a helicopter perspective and then we create an unsafe environment, you know, with heat stress or, you know, walking through sort of long areas and long distances of swamp water and the like. So... And we’re working closely with CASA now and it’s actually showing really good results.

 

AMBER SAYERS:

Over the last 10 years, there’s only been a total of 49 claims - compensation claims - within the industry. And considering they’re dealing with a very unpredictable, prehistoric animal, there are very few serious incidents within the industry.

 

MICK BURNS:
From a staff retention point of view, we’ve managed to build up a pretty good team, so they work... There’s consistent threads in it so that we’ve got stringent and strict JHAs, we identify our hazards and we work through those and we come up with standard procedures to deal with them and, you know, and the chopper pilots who are obviously acutely aware of much more of the risk factors than probably what they were 15 years ago, but that’s just consistent with the development of what we do so that we don’t have people getting injured and people getting hurt.

 

(Didgeridoo plays)

 

MICK BURNS:

We now do a safety brief every morning before we go out. Now that we’re getting a slightly bigger team that goes out and collects, we’ve got to make sure everyone’s singing out of the same hymnbook.

 

MICK BURNS:
Just little things and little preventative things, you know, like sunscreen, mosquito repellent, water. Water is one of the biggest things when you’re out in these swamps. You know, you’re surrounded by water, you can’t drink any of it. Got to keep hydrated and, you know, little things. When you’re waiting for the helicopter to come back, making sure you stand in the shade and you’re not standing in the sun. You dehydrate so quickly, you’ve just got to make sure that the chopper pilots themselves just factor it in and, you know, every 10 minutes you’ve got water and you’re getting water into you. It’s amazing how much water you drink during the day when you’re out egg collecting.

 

MICK BURNS:
We have a little basket and it’s a visual barrier for the crocodile and you can actually put the basket over the top of the nest and the person gets lowered down into it. It’s actually all suspended down at the one time. You know, things - little initiatives - like that have meant that you can collect a lot of nests much, much safer than what you could previously do or nests that previously wouldn’t have been collected.

 

MICK BURNS:

Some of the other things that we’re now doing, we used to sort of work long, hard days with, you know, two pilots and a machine or two pilots swapping over. We now work a regulated shift. We don’t work in and around thunder storms. We actually sort of plan it out such that people aren’t expected to work ridiculously long hours in very demanding conditions.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

With our senior staff and management staff, they have been around for a long time. A lot of them, well, they’re animal-lovers, to start with. A lot of them love reptiles and have come from maybe a zoo background or have been on farms their whole life. This is the environment that they love to work in.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

Training is one of our major factors. As soon as you get here, you’re put through an induction, you’re provided with every bit of knowledge that you need prior to then going out and actually doing the physical side of the job that you’re expected to do.

 

AMBER SAYERS:

I think it’s quite well-known that within the agricultural industry, many of the workers have English as their second language.

 

ROY:

(Speaks Korean)

 

AMBER SAYERS:

OK. Today we’re doing a toolbox talk on heat stress. We thought we’d go through a bit of information to... so you understand the effects on your health and wellbeing. I’ll go through it and Roy is going to translate for you.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

Obviously we deal with a workforce that speaks a different language, so we translate all our documentation, all our signs. What’s the point of training someone if they can’t understand what you’re saying? We have translators that translate everything to the ones that aren’t able to actually speak very good English at all.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

Obviously our workforce is largely based with Korean staff. They’re very interested in the industry and like to be part of something that they’ve never been exposed to before. They are hard workers. They have a high expectation of Australia in a lot of ways and the crocodile industry is just one of them. We do a lot of external training as well. We put our people through supervisor training and, you know, we’re giving these people skills that they probably wouldn’t have got anywhere else, but they stay with us.

 

AMBER SAYERS:

Translations and things down to the workers shows that they have a great respect for their workers and that they ensure that those workers understand what is required of them and how to keep safe within the workplace.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

We are a well-oiled organisation. We’re not a backyard farm down the road. Our suppliers have to be able to provide us and present themselves on the farm exactly what we would expect from our own employees and have that reliability at all times. When you’re feeding out and you’re feeding a large farm, you require that feed. You can’t have a service provider who’s not reliable. They have to be able to provide us with everything that we need at all times and follow the rules and regulations that we have when you’re actually presenting on the farm.

 

AMBER SAYERS:

The workers are an extremely important part of the business. They need to be kept safe and I think it’s in the government’s best interest to ensure that the farms follow their safety plans and their management plans, risk assess when it’s required and make sure that their workers stay safe.

 

SPEAKER:

What we’ve got to do is make sure you’ve got all your chemicals cleaning there.

 

WORKER:

Yep.

 

SPEAKER:

You’ve got all your gloves.

 

WORKER:

OK.

 

SPEAKER:

Have you got your gloves? Have you got your...?

 

WORKER:

Yes. I bring that.

 

SPEAKER:

Yeah, you’ve got all of that? Alright. So then we just have to sign.

 

WORKER:

OK.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

Crocodiles are our biggest hazard. They’re not our only hazard by far. But it goes back to working with them continually and not having them in a stressful situation that we can work with them really quite well. We train our staff to understand their behaviour as much as we possibly can from an animal that you can’t train. So it’s understanding and predicting what they may do next and that comes from experience. The guys that we have working on the farm have... The years of experience is invaluable and so we utilise that experience and we put it down into paper and we use those documents as our training documents to teach other people this is the best way to do it because it’s the safest way that we’ve found to do it and our injury rate shows that. Our continual performance rate in our safety shows that.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

We’d have more problems dealing with manual handling issues than we have with our actual crocodiles. So we like to focus our safety across the board. It’s not all just about crocodile handling. We have so many other aspects of the farm that have to be monitored, applied and identified and risk-assessed to keep our large employee base as safe as we possibly can.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

For an example, in the construction industry, reversing beepers are an absolute must. Flashing lights on anything that moves is an absolute must. They have to be on it. It’s law, basically, in the construction industry. We apply those practices here, but we have to be looking at how they actually affect our animals too, so we apply them but we withdraw them when we need to because of the stress to the animal. If we’re going to have a flashing light that’s going to stress our animals out, which is then going to put our people at risk that are actually in the pen, we have to reconsider what we’re doing. We’re causing them to be stressed, which is causing them to be more of a danger, so we have to relook at our practices and actually adapt them outside of certain areas, implement them in areas, take them away in areas and identify a different way of actually representing what we were trying to achieve in the first place by having the flashing light.

 

MICK BURNS:

We’ve got to manage the compliance in and around our industry ‘cause we’re... and we need adaptive compliance rules and regs because what we’re doing is we’re farming and we’re actually doing the research and development about the best way and the happiest way and the healthiest way. We do stress tests on all our crocodiles at all different phases of the farming and the result of those means that we farm crocodiles in a different way. You know, so we can’t then have regulators that don’t actually understand as much about crocs as what we do. We certainly have to be regulated and we certainly need an open book in terms of the compliance in and around our industry, but we need to work closely with the regulators, hand-in-hand, so that we can get the best result.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

All the crocodiles we catch, the saltwater ones, all of these ones are taken to the croc farm. Now, there’s several croc farms in Darwin. They put in for a tender to utilise these crocodiles. Whoever’s got the... wins the tender, then that’s where we take the crocodiles to. So, all the crocodile farms, they work under a managed program which is all government regulated, so therefore they have to have the safe practices, which is regulated by the government, both in the humane treatment of the crocodiles, their pens, the way they hold the crocodiles in captivity and it’s the same with us ourselves. Being a government organisation, we also act under many different acts. We make sure safety, obviously, definitely is a number one priority for our staff in both catching the crocodiles. Everyone is well-trained. They’ve got courses from their croc certificates, first aid, firearms and drugs when we utilise for the crocodiles themselves. And also our main thing is the humane capture and treatment of the animals themselves.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

We have what we call a management zone and that is Darwin Harbour, Shell Bay and also the rural area. It’s an area which is heavily utilised by obviously local fishermen and also you’ve got a lot of commercial activity which has taken place with all the gas plants and divers working in those areas. So we have 26 permanent traps set in these areas which are checked and re-baited every week. Now, we just in the management zone alone, we get 250-300 crocodiles per year in that area. Now, the extended management zone, which covers the rural area, that’s mainly in the wet season because all our freshwater systems, they all connect up with the saltwater during the wet season, so we have areas which are flooding and we are experiencing where we’re getting crocodiles into areas where they never used to be before.

 

TOM NICHOLS:
What we’re really doing is only creating a vacuum though. With what we take out, another one is going to come back in, whether it’s next week, next month or next year. But the thing is, if we didn’t have this management program going, the chances of a fatality would be extremely high due to the high numbers.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

Everybody does a certain amount of training, which they have to know exactly what we do. Every person in our unit is more than capable of tying a crocodile. We all take different approaches of putting a snout rope on, the zip-ties and then taping the animal itself. Once we’ve caught the crocodile and the crocodile is tied up, then unfortunately its tail can do a lot of damage. To one of us which, you know, walking around, hitting us in the legs, it could throw you around. But he also can do damage to himself by hitting himself on hard objects in the boat.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

They can swing around and they have teeth which are protruding on the outside of the jaws and it’s not going to bite you, but you get scratched and that ends up being infected. Now we also use an expensive and dangerous equipment as far as boats go. That’s also... Everyone has to be trained in the utilisation of these particular vessels, so that can be a hazard if it’s not done properly. We have firearms. Everybody needs to be trained in the firearms themselves, so we always have firearms on the boats with us. We also have drug guns and utilisation of drugs when you’re dispensing of drugs. We’re always talking to each other when we’re doing any procedures as you’re tying the croc up, capturing the croc. Everyone’s looking and we have certain procedures where someone says, “Looks good to me,” and the other one has to verify it.

 

TOM NICHOLS:

And we’re forever trying to improve our practices. We’re looking for new things. We have a strong liaison with Gary Linda out there, the crocodile catcher out there and also Western Australia and Queensland, we have a liaison there. If they come up with something new, then we all talk about it and implement it. If it works, it’s going to work for us.

 

MICK BURNS:

The industry now is very much about animals that are hatched and farmed on the farms and the skins are the most beautiful skins, almost flawless, whereas the old days when it was predominantly hunting of crocs to produce skins, it was really just about the production of a number of skins and they were sold on size only.

 

LISA TRAHAIR:

To get the perfect skin for the perfect bag, it starts right from the very beginning of the little crocodile and its egg and how we manage that crocodile all the way through its whole process of life, right down from the feed that we provide it, how carefully we manage their stress levels and have the workforce, by looking after them and providing them with a safe environment, that they want to work for us and then we’re able to grow more crocodiles and grow a bigger industry that, at the end of the day, provides a better product.

 

MICK BURNS:

Traditionally, the farming industry in Australia and the Crocodylus porosus, which is the species of crocodile we farm, the saltwater crocodile, it’s traditionally competed with the American alligator market and with the Nile croc from the African countries. We produce, obviously, the Top End, we’re definitely a much, much better skin with the small scale pattern. Our competition is from the Asian markets where there’s much cheaper source of wages, there’s no work health and safety, there’s better temperature profiles, there’s better water. So we’ve really got to be on our game and we’ve got to learn to farm smart. We’re a much better skin, we’re much more favoured by the major fashion houses because of the beautiful feminine appearance of the scale pattern.

 

MICK BURNS:

The products that we get, you know, 90-95% of what we sell is the skin. There is meat that gets sold but Australians aren’t big exotic meat eaters and we get the back straps. You’ve probably seen the popular back strap belts. And there’s no question, we’re putting more money and more R&D money into looking at the opportunities that we may be able to create in the science world in and around the blood and other things. You know, once we get a big enough biomass, again, we’ll be able to look at composting and, you know, fertilisers and all that sort of thing with a lot of our waste material.

 

MICK BURNS:
We’ve got a Croc Farmers Association of the Northern Territory, CFANT. We’ve got our own executive officer now and it’s been pretty important that the farms recognise that the success of the industry here in Australia doesn’t come from a, you know, farm south of Darwin or a farm south-east of Darwin competing with each other. We’re all in the one fight but we’re in an international fight. You know, we’re actually fighting to produce the best quality skin, you know, as far south as what you can farm crocodiles and we’re competing with overseas countries that enjoy a lot of edges over us.

 

AMBER SAYER:

The management of the farms has evolved over many years. There’s obviously a lot more interest now in environmental issues, care of the animals. Everyone’s involved in making sure and wanting to make sure that animals are kept as humanely as possible. There’s also the evolving safety aspect, which will continue to evolve because safety is not going to go away. It’s just going to become more and more prevalent within business because everyone needs to go home at the end of the day. You don’t go to work not to go home. You work to live, not live to work, so it’s very important that the safety of those people who work on those farms and in the industry and be egg collecting or hanging from a helicopter, that they’re kept safe. They need to go home to their families at the end of the day and I think everyone is very aware that that’s what is required of all business wherever you work.


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Last modified on Wednesday 30 January 2019 [186|88196]