Safety alert 06/2020 - Station hands riding horses without wearing safety helmets

Despite all sporting, horse riding industry and education bodies promoting the use of safety approved riding helmets, it has been found that some cattle stations are allowing station hands to ride horses while mustering or otherwise handling horses, without the use of a safety approved riding helmet. Instead, these riders are wearing wide-brimmed felt hats which they perceive to be cooler in the hot temperatures of the north west of Western Australia.

In managing their risks, some stations have a policy that requires first year or inexperienced employees to wear a safety approved riding helmet when riding horses in the workplace. At the end of that first year, the employee may be assessed as skilled enough to ride safely without a helmet.

Working with horses is dangerous and the Department recommends all workers wear a safety approved riding helmet at all times. Even the most highly trained horses and riders can have incidents which lead to serious injury or death.

Contributing factors

There are significant safety risks associated with working with horses. These include, but are not limited to:

  • horses, even well trained ones, may act independently of the rider’s direction, and this may cause a loss of control of the horse. For example, a horse may shy causing it to move unexpectedly, and the rider may potentially fall off
  • a rider’s head may be between 2.5 metres and 3 metres from the ground when on a horse, and a fall may cause their head to strike the ground with force due to the distance involved
  • a kick from a horse to the head can cause serious, even fatal injury.

Action required

Station management should undertake risk assessments for when workers are required to ride or handle horses while undertaking work activities. When conducting risk assessments for horse riding in the workplace, hazards must be mitigated as far as is reasonably practicable. This means that employers have a responsibility to ensure that employees are not exposed to hazards such as falling off a horse and receiving an impact to the head or being kicked by a horse while not wearing a helmet.

Division 2 of the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996 sets out duties in relation to personal protective clothing and equipment (PPE). Where horse-riding is a requirement of the workplace, safety approved riding helmets are considered appropriate PPE.

A risk assessment should include:

  • a rider’s confidence, skills and ability
  • horse health, reliability and predictability
  • environmental conditions, including weather and terrain
  • work activity, e.g. mustering.

Additional safety considerations include the following:

  • match the horse and rider according to the horse’s temperament and level of experience, and the rider’s skills and experience
  • ensure appropriate PPE is provided and used at all times. Broad-brimmed attachments for safety helmets are widely available and are commonly used in hot conditions
  • check that helmets are safety approved and are in good condition before use. Damaged helmets should not be used
  • train workers to use PPE correctly, including proper adjustment of the chin strap.

It is important to note that the life expectancy of a helmet is variable. AS/NZS 3838 states that:

Helmet life depends on the frequency and conditions of use, care and storage. Helmets showing obvious signs of damage or wear should be replaced. In general, helmets have a useable life of 5 years. Those used very frequently may require earlier replacement.

Managing heat stress

Within the cattle industry, it is sometimes asserted that it is preferable to use a wide-brimmed hat over safety approved riding helmets in managing the risk of heat stress when riding horses in hot conditions.

This assertion was tested in both field and laboratory conditions in the north west of Australia. The research found that a wide-brimmed felt hat is no cooler than a safety approved riding helmet. The research report recommended riders wear a safety approved riding helmet with adequate ventilation.

The risk of heat stress when riding horses in hot conditions can be managed with a combination of:

  • maintaining an accessible supply of cool water, encouraging riders to start their shift fully hydrated and keeping well hydrated during their shift
  • managing the rate of work so that the progressive rise in core temperature is kept below levels that might lead to heat illness
  • providing additional rest breaks for riders in cool, shaded areas
  • wearing safety approved riding helmets which do not restrict air flow to the head, such as a vented helmet with a wide brim added
  • training riders to recognise the symptoms of heat illness and how to treat heat illness with appropriate first aid.

Further information

Last updated 17 Sep 2020

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