In brief - it is important to revisit the WHS duties of farmers and the risks posed in the agriculture sector with the rise in automation and artificial intelligence (AI).

Following on from National Farm Safety Week and with National Work Safe Month approaching, it is a timely reminder to revisit the hazards within the agriculture sector, understand the work health and safety obligations of farmers, and stay informed about emerging trends.

Agriculture sector statistics

Since 2020, there has been a notable focus on reducing serious injuries and fatalities in the agriculture sector. Given the data related to serious injury in this sector, substantial work remains to be done.

This year, Safe Work Australia unveiled its annual report on Key Work Health and Safety Statistics for Australia in 2022.
Within the agriculture sector more broadly, the incident rate of serious claims (per thousand employees) was the highest compared to other sectors, at 20.2 workers per thousand.
Likewise, the agriculture sector more broadly had the highest fatality rate, with 10.4 fatalities for every 100,000 workers. This rate is approximately 25% higher than the transport, postal, and warehousing sector, and about 78% higher than the mining industry.

Most common hazards and causes of injuries in the agriculture sector

 What makes the agriculture sector one of the most dangerous sectors is the combination of potential hazards, including:

  • Plant, machinery, and equipment (especially, tractors and motorbikes)

  • Chemicals (including pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers)

  • Noise

  • Dust

  • Exposure to the elements and working with animals.

The risks are often exacerbated by workers working remotely, alone or without the appropriate experience, equipment, or protective wear.
Frequent causes of injury encompass:

  • Injury from interactions with livestock

  • Accidents from slips, trips and falls, especially from elevated surfaces

  • Injury arising from contact or becoming caught in moving parts of agricultural machinery

  • Injury arising from being struck by objects, either moving or stationary.

Duty to protect the health and safety of employees

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (WHS Act), farm owners, as a 'person conducting a business or undertaking' (such person or business is referred to as a 'PCBU'), and managers, as WHS Officers, bear the primary duty of ensuring the health and safety of workers, so far as is reasonably practicable, including during breaks.
The recent Court of Appeal case of R v Cordwell; R v Cordwell Resources Pty Ltd [2023] QCA 26 serves as a reminder that workplace safety is a critical responsibility that PCBUs and Officers cannot ignore or delegate.
In this case, a workplace incident occurred where a worker incurred two severe lacerations to his head measuring 60 millimetres and 100 millimetres respectively after his head became trapped by a front-end loader. Mr Cordwell (the director of the PCBU) was convicted and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment suspended immediately for an operational period of 12 months and the company was convicted and sentenced to pay a fine of $500,000.
In response to reckless actions by several PCBUs in Queensland, the WHS Act was amended in 2017 to introduce an industrial manslaughter provision. This provision creates an offence for a PCBU or Senior Officer (such as a farm manager) to negligently cause a worker's death.
In Queensland, industrial manslaughter carries severe penalties, with individuals facing up to 20 years imprisonment and companies liable for fines of up to $10 million. Similarly, heavy penalties apply in other states and territories.
PCBUs are required to fulfill their obligations by implementing adequate systems of work, training and instruction.

What can you do to protect yourself and your workers?

Case law guides what PCBU's and officers must do to discharge statutory WHS obligations and fulfill their duty to protect their workers. These duties include:

  • Conducting risk assessments to pinpoint potential farm hazards

  • Replacing or eliminating hazards, such as unsafe tools or equipment

  • If total hazard elimination is not feasible, implementing measures to reduce risks

  • Properly recording hazard control measures in easily accessible documents, using clear and concise language

  • Farm owners obtaining safety data sheets for hazardous chemicals and sharing them with relevant parties, including visitors

  • Regularly providing workers with clear information and instructions about health and safety concerns on the farm

  • Delivering workplace training understandably, especially for non-English speakers

  • Farm managers or designated 'Officers' establishing systems to oversee the farm owner's compliance with the WHS Act.

Emerging risks of autonomous machinery in the agriculture industry

Amid these developments, the agriculture industry is undergoing an exciting transformation, largely driven by digital innovations, notably:

  • Automation: This involves the integration of robots, drones, and self-driving tractors to amplify farming efficiency.

  • Precision farming: This approach tailors the application of irrigation, fertilisers, and pesticides based on specific crop requirements, departing from uniform application.

The integration of automated farming equipment, while beneficial for productivity, introduces certain safety considerations.

Examination of autonomous machinery reveals two categories of risks. First, how conventional hazards of mobile machines evolve when shifting from semi-autonomous to fully autonomous modes. Second, the risk sources associated with autonomous mobile machinery and its functional safety. Additionally, there are other risks not directly tied to machine operation, which will also be addressed below.

Changing to autonomous mode

Hazard type

Relevance, conventional/autonomous comparison

Mechanical hazards

Similar in autonomous/semi-autonomous and conventional systems. After an accident or incident, hazard mitigation can be difficult without human presence.

Braking failure

Autonomous vehicles lack the driver's ability to choose consequences, causing liability, and ethical and technical issues.

Falling objects

Autonomous machines may lack sensors to detect fallen loads, posing hazards to other machines or bystanders.


Autonomous machines might stop in unstable positions.

Electrical hazards

Preventing close proximity to live electricity is crucial.

Thermal hazards

Autonomous mobile machines could stop in a position, where it can overheat.

Source: Malm, T., Tiusanen, R., Heikkilä, E. & Sarsama, J. (2022). Safety risk sources of autonomous mobile machines. Open Engineering12(1), 977-990.

Autonomous operation failures and related risk sources

Hazard type

Relevance, conventional/autonomous comparison

Lack of situational awareness

The machine cannot sense fire, vibrations, or significant failures/collisions as humans do, thereby being unable to trigger protective systems and mitigate outcomes. It's essential to evaluate whether technical solutions are required to identify atypical machine behaviour, potentially mitigating more serious hazards.

Area access control fails

Unauthorised entry due to failed access control can lead to collisions.

Unexpected autonomous mode

Hazardous situations can arise if autonomous mode starts without proper conditions.

System updates/programming failures

Incomplete updates can cause the machine to enter forbidden areas, with communication failures as risks.

Emergency procedures

To minimise risks, emergency situations may require quick egress for persons through a normally closed autonomous area.

Failing lockout process

Failed lockout can lead to unexpected system movements.

Navigation failure, operation control failure

Inaccurate navigation, control, and sensor failures can lead to hazardous machine movements.

Machine steering control failure

Machine steering failure can lead to incorrect movement direction. Inadequate steering fulfillment is an indirect risk. Criteria depend on machine type and speed. Slow speed allows stopping for safety. High speeds need sustained steering until safe slowdown. Failure requires primary, secondary steering, and brake coordination.

Stability control

Traditional machines offer alerts for potential falls and precautions for movement (for instance, mobile elevating work platforms). Ensuring stability is essential for self-directed mobile apparatuses, given their speed, lifting capabilities, and manoeuvring around corners. Achieving the requisite performance standard holds utmost importance.

Perception of a tagged person or machine fails

Tag perception failure may lead to unauthorised access to reserved areas or missed area reservations when tagged objects enter. Inadequate separation distance from autonomous machines might result in collisions.

Perception failure of humans, machine, or other objects

Perception failures may stem from sensor hardware, software, or communication issues. Sensors must adhere to defined performance levels. Physical sensor properties like detection range and response time can fall short due to design or calibration. Object positions, dimensions, surfaces, environmental factors, and human actions can also lead to failures. Sensor interference, system limitations, and environmental conditions further contribute to reduced detection capabilities.

Remote safety function activation failure

Message errors can cause hazards. Message errors repetitions, deletion, insertion, re-sequencing, corruption, delay and masquerade should be considered

Data errors

Inaccurate data poses risks, spanning situational awareness, terrain, commands, coordination, and more. Failures can involve intersection control, machine coordination, hazard info, and environment-related factors like weather and power.

Communication failure

Fleet control errors include incorrect assignments due to coding or human mistakes, mismatched maps, and wrong machine parameters like dimensions.

Load handling failure

Load handling failures arise from factors like erroneous commands, communication, inaccurate precision, imperfect loads, incorrect attachments and unsuitable environmental conditions.

Automated fuelling/charging failure

Automated fuelling or charging systems carry hazards determined by the specific setup. Risks should be identified through risk assessment and standards. These risks include overcharging, flammable fumes, heat, static electricity, live parts, battery management, and positioning issues.

Source: Malm, T., Tiusanen, R., Heikkilä, E. & Sarsama, J. (2022). Safety risk sources of autonomous mobile machines. Open Engineering12(1), 977-990.

Other risks

Hazard Type

Relevance, conventional/autonomous comparison


Autonomous machines collect data that may be confidential and private, which raises concerns. The types of data collected includes:

  • Proprietary data (e.g. confidential scientific, business or financial data)
  • Commercially sensitive information

  • Personal information.

Proprietary and confidential data may include data collected about yield and paddock sizes. Parties with access to such data may be able to determine potential profits for the farmer, which means they would be able to determine the financial viability of the business, putting them at a competitive advantage. Additionally, if such data is leaked, it may impact customer confidence and the reputation of the business.

If personal information may be collected or used (e.g. information about individuals working the farm), consent should be given by the relevant individual before collecting personal data and such data must be handled in accordance with the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (including the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs)).
One benefit of obtaining such data is the potential for data sharing. Data sharing has proven to:


  • Improve knowledge and expertise

  • ​Improve safety

  • Improve the quality and operations of autonomous machines.

As for the equipment manufacturers, there is a significant monetary benefit for them to share such data. Alternatively, by keeping the data for their use, it can provide the equipment manufacturer with a competitive advantage.

Cybersecurity risk

If the machine's system is connected to the internet, malicious attacks on the system or single machine may enable hazardous movements of autonomous mobile machines, or disable their movement entirely.


  • Some automated technologies may introduce environmental risks, like the unintentional spread of chemicals or seeds, if precision application systems fail (See: Marsh v Baxter [2014] WASC 187).

  • Automated systems require a significant amount of energy to operate, which could be argued (or subject to protests) results in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

 Despite the risks, AI and digital technology provide great opportunities to increase productivity, streamline risk identification and recording practice, onboarding, and the development of SWMS and other safety documentation. It could also assist in the training of workers and sharing of information about safety in the agriculture sector. Such developments can prove useful to workers in real-time, especially in accidents and emergencies. For instance, location services software can locate workers who are remote or isolated. More generally, AI use can help capture, process, and analyse data around accidents and near misses to improve safety and ensure better WHS compliance.
While AI is developing its application to the agriculture sector, ultimately PCBUs and Officers are responsible for identifying and mitigating safety risks. Farmers and workers must receive adequate training on operating and maintaining the automated equipment properly. Regular maintenance and inspections are also essential to identify potential issues early on. Additionally, equipment manufacturers should implement robust safety features and guidelines, and where such equipment has internet-collected software, cybersecurity measures should be in place to protect the equipment from unauthorised access.
It is an exciting time for the agriculture industry, but safety should always be paramount.

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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