The dark side of the shearing industry is in the spotlight again

A love for shearing: Phillip Skewes, Glen Innes. Photo: Fairfax Media.

A love for shearing: Phillip Skewes, Glen Innes. Photo: Fairfax Media.

While shearing is well known as an iconic Australian activity, the dark side of the industry is in the spotlight again.

Drugs, poor living and working conditions plus unsafe equipment are just some of the issues shearers are still facing.

Seasoned shearer Phillip Skewes, from Glen Innes, has been shearing for more than 50 years and believes more needs to be done to improve the standard of safety in sheds.


The use of Methamphetamine (ice) in shearing sheds, was first brought to national headlines a few years ago.

But Mr Skewes said drug taking is still prevalent, with some shearers believing that it will make them work harder.

“There’s no need for it, they don’t need to do it. It’s just an ego thing,” he said.

“I had two blokes working for me and they were taking speed and they were just shearing flat out. You couldn’t talk to them.

“I asked them to slow down and do a better job but they were just that hyped up they couldn’t. They can’t sit still, they can’t relax they have to be up doing something all of the time.”

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Mr Skewes said doesn’t know how drug taking could be monitored.

“It’s been going on for quite a long time,” he said.

Gracia Kusuma, NSW Farmers’ Workplace Relations Manager said drug use in shearing sheds is strongly opposed by farmers, and jeopardises the worker’s safety and the safety of other team members.

“Under WHS (work, health and safety) regimes, workers have the obligation to ensure they act in a manner that is safe for themselves and others,” she said.

“Consuming or being under the influence of drugs while at work is unsafe and illegal.

“Last year, a working group made up of representatives from unions, contractors and farmers launched a drug free shed poster last year indicating our strong view that drugs are not welcome in shearing sheds.”

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Ms Kusama said administering drug testing is not a simple solution, there are a number of issues to be worked through, such as who administer and bear the cost of the test.

“Shearers are transient; they only work in the farm for a short period of time before they move on to the next farm to shear,” she said.

“There is also the dynamic between farmer and contractor to be considered, because often times, farmers don’t directly employ their shearers. Industry wide collaboration and cooperation is necessary to have a good chance of successfully combating the problem.”

In May 2017, the Wool Industry Stakeholder’s Reference Group held a summit to address drugs and alcohol in the shearing industry.

The summit was designed to align with the ongoing work of the reference group and focus on concerns raised by industry regarding the impact of drugs and alcohol on OH&S and industry reputation.

The Stakeholder Reference Group consists of WoolProducers Australia (WPA), The Shearing Contractors Association of Australia (SCAA), The Australian Wool Exchange (AWEX),  The WA Shearing Industry Association (WASIA), The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU).

The group developed a drug and alcohol policy for the shearing industry, with the intention to ensure that fitness for work is not affected by misuse of alcohol and drugs through education and awareness.

Jo Hall, CEO of WoolProducers Australia said in addition to the policy, a joint wool industry initiative (WPA, SCAA, WASIA, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI)) developed a woolshed poster to help champion higher standards in woolsheds across Australia.

“The free A2 size poster is designed to be placed in a prominent position in all shearing sheds, to remind wool growers and wool harvesters of their joint responsibilities and expectations to achieve a safe and effective workplace and to treat sheep humanely at all times,” Ms Hall said.

“The points outlined on the poster complement relevant state laws regarding animal welfare, workplace health and safety and the prohibition of drug use.”

The shearing shed poster. Photo: Supplied.

The shearing shed poster. Photo: Supplied.


Mr Skewes said in the years he’s been working across Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmanian shearing sheds, one of the biggest technological advancements he’s seen is the anti-lock equipment.

Something of which he is thankful for.

A lockup is when an obstacle, for example a small stick in the wool, lodges in between the comb and the cutter stopping its reciprocating movement from 3500 RPM to 0 RPM.

A lockup rips the hand piece from the shearer’s hand and at this time becomes an air born lethal weapon. 

Traditionally when a lockup occurs the shearing plant keeps running and this is when the hand piece, once locked up, can cause serious injury to the user. 

“I remember one guy back in the 1970’s he just ran out of the shed and shut the door,” Mr Skewes said of a lock-up incident.

He said the device will keep going until it comes off the down tube or someone pulls it out of gear or stops the motor.

“I’ve seen sheep badly cut when they’ve locked up and I’ve cut myself baldy too with lock-ups,” he said. 

But the anti-lock equipment will stop the reciprocating comb and cutter instantly, Mr Skewes said.

He said the anti-lock should have been rolled out in all Australian shearing sheds years ago.

“When I first started contracting I had seven injuries from lock-ups in the first 12 months and I went and bought... five anti-lock equipment and I haven’t had another injury from a lock-up in 15 years,” Mr Skewes said.

He said the Gulargambone shearing incident when a woman was scalped should never have happened.

Mr Skewes also spoke about another incident when a man in Queensland had his arm ripped out after he was late getting to work and he jumped up to put his sling in the overhead gear and caught his jumper.

He said other than the individual or contractor no-one else, including Insurance and work compensation companies, has pushed for these anti-lock equipment to be rolled out.


Mr Skewes would love to see old shearing sheds and shearing quarters upgraded.

He knows of an incident where there was no drinking water, hardly any lights and nothing cleaned in the shearing quarters.

Tin huts also aren’t well insulated, often becoming cold at night and boiling hot during the day, Mr Skewes said.

“You’ll have sheds like that, but then you’ll have other’s… and they’ve out in all new quarters for the shearers.. and they’re doing something every year to make things better and more comfortable,” he said.

“You’ve got the extremes, but there’s a lot that just don’t care at all.”

In the summer months, shearers work in 50 plus degree heat in the shed.

“Nearly all shearers carry a fan,” Mr Skewes said.

“It just cools you down a little bit.. they talk about air-conditioning (in sheds) but I don’t think you’d be able to because of the grating, the air would be coming up through the grating and wouldn’t be that feasible.

“But air-conditioning quarters so people can sleep of a night is the biggest issue. If you can sleep of a night you can work through the day.

“But some farmers think as we’re only here for a week or two weeks at a time they don’t bother putting new equipment in shearing sheds or fixing the standard of sheds.”

Ms Kusuma said WHS considerations apply to the shearing sheds and living quarters.

“Facilities provided by employers need to create a safe environment for the performance of work,” she said.

“It is acknowledged there are a few farms out there that could use an upgrade in their shearing facility, these types of information spread like wild fire across the shearing community making it harder for the farms with sub-par facilities to attract shearers.”


Mr Skewes said he still enjoys shearing but is thinking of retirement soon.

“You get sick of the atmosphere in some of the sheds,” he said.

“I’ve got a good little team.. I’m lucky I’ve got my son and daughter.. and another couple of ladies that come and work for us and we have a good time.”

The National Farmers Federation and The Australian Workers Union were were asked to provide a comment, but did not respond by deadline.