Worksafe New Zealand has been accused of selling farm workers' safety short by not prosecuting farmers for dangerous practices.
The health and safety regulator told a parliamentary select committee yesterday that prosecuting farmers would not be a productive way of improving safety in the sector.
Year after year, more people are injured and killed on farms than in any other workplace in New Zealand.
The year to July 2015 was no exception, with 20 New Zealanders killed in the agriculture sector - more than double the number killed in forestry, mining and construction combined.
Worksafe chairman Gregor Coster told MPs that the regulator's pro-active stance in the forestry industry over the past few years, where it combined education programmes with prosecutions, had driven change, leading to fewer injuries and deaths last year.
Its approach to dealing with farmers was "quite different", he said.
"Because I don't think if you just go round and start prosecuting a bunch of farmers that that's actually a productive way to bring change in that sector.
"Our approach has been 'let's work with the farming sector to bring change'."
In addition to Worksafe's Safer Farms programme, in which 5000 people participated last year, Mr Coster said the regulator regularly met with farming lobby groups.
"There's a wide-range of industry bodies - we're working with them all, we're enjoying working with them, so it's not just about prosecutions.
"It's actually about our three-pronged attack of engagement, education and enforcement, so you've just got to pick the right way to work with industry groups."
Opposition MPs want tougher approach
Labour workplace safety spokesperson Sue Moroney said Worksafe was sending a clear message that those who were "bloody-minded" wouldn't get prosecuted.
Worksafe was letting farm workers down "big time", she said.
"They're letting workers down right throughout the country by taking that attitude, because not only has the National government exempted agriculture from being high-risk but now the regulator is exempting them from taking prosecutions.
"Every worker in every workplace in New Zealand needs to know that they've got both the government and a health and safety regulator that's got their back."
Green MP Denise Roche said she was very surprised at Worksafe's position.
"I accept that education is what we all want but when you've got 20 deaths a year in that industry then, actually, we should be holding a few people up for account through the courts."
From April 2016, under the government's Health and Safety at Work Act, any workplace that falls into the high-risk category will be required to have a health and safety officer.
However, last year, Workplace Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse ignored official advice and deemed sheep, beef and dairy farms to be low-risk.
Time and time again at yesterday's select committee hearing, Mrs Moroney asked Worksafe's top bosses if they believed agriculture was a high-risk industry.
The officials had a diplomatic answer to hand, to spare Mr Woodhouse potential embarrassment: "The figures speak for themselves."
Since 2008, 120 New Zealanders have died in work-related farm accidents - and 220,000 work days on farms are lost each year because of injuries.