updated 11/15/2004 7:21:03 PM ET 2004-11-16T00:21:03

The sweat-stained felt hats worn by Australian cowboys, as much a part of the Outback as kangaroos and sun-baked soil, may be heading for the history books. They fail modern industrial safety standards.

It all stems from the death of a cowboy who suffered massive head injuries after being trampled in a fall from a horse while mustering bulls in July 2001. His sole protection was the tattered hat provided him for shading from the sun.

The New South Wales state government brought charges against the ranch owner, who employed 23-year-old Daniel Croker, convicting and fining the company $72,000 last month for breaches of safety, including failure to provide the horseman with an equestrian helmet.

Ranch manager Nicholas Ennis told investigators he knew of no ranch in Australia that made cowboys wear helmets except while mustering on motorbikes.

Since the tragedy at the ranch in Merriwagga, about 300 miles west of Sydney, helmets have become compulsory for working in the saddle there, but ranchers are calling for industrial laws to be changed to reflect the differences between working in the Outback and in a city factory.

Heat-stroke dangers?
New South Wales Farmers Association President Mal Peters warned that substituting helmets for broad-brimmed hats would increase the hazards of skin cancer and heatstroke.

He said there is no helmet a farmer can use when the temperature reaches 113 degrees. “For a farmer who’s mustering a mob of sheep, moving very slowly behind them without any air circulation, he or his employee may be subject to heatstroke,” Peters said.

Since the tragedy, the dead cowboy’s father, Neil Croker, has become a campaigner for safer work practices on farms.

“I think we can still have that fantasy of romantic, Wild West-type attitude but with safety added on,” Croker told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio

Confronting ‘an icon of Australia’
National Farmers Federation chief executive Anna Cronin said Australia’s leading farmers association supported initiatives to develop lightweight, broad-brimmed hard hats as an alternative to helmets.

But ex-cowboy Hayden Bostock blamed apathy in the ranching industry for inadequate safety equipment for cowboys. Bostock said he has been developing a lightweight, broad-brimmed hard hat that met Australian safety standards but has failed to attract enough support in the cattle and sheep industry to get the hat into production.

“The stockman’s hat is an icon of Australia. You can’t replace it with an ice-cream container on the head,” Bostock said. “Being a bushman myself, we’re not going to wear anything that doesn’t look any good.”

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