Darragh McCullough: Drive for safety is going to become a big cost challenge for many farmers
The older you get, the more scared you become. That's just a fact of life.
After 20 years working in the sector, I've seen and heard all the horror stories that go with farm accidents. It tends to get in on you.
In the last year or two I've found myself worrying more and more about the staff working on my farm.
I'm particularly vulnerable as an employer of up to 40 people, many of whom don't speak English and have limited education.
But the biggest challenge is overcoming the cultural difference between attitudes to health and safety in a relatively rich country like Ireland and a poorer one like Romania, where most of my staff hail from.
The notion of stopping everything to go and spend €100 on a replacement PTO cover would be extravagant in Romania, where that would equal a week's wages.
But when I think back about what was acceptable around the place here over the years, who am I to judge?
Stark-naked PTO shafts were fairly standard.
More ridiculous was my dad's Czechoslovakian jeep that the entire locality could hear coming from a mile away.
But it was the rusted-out floor that allowed passengers to study the condition of the insides of the tyres as we motored along that is really emblazoned on my memory.
A stray stick, bar or (God forbid) limb would have had disastrous consequences.
Tractors tumbled off the edges of silage pits, spins on the top of bales down the road were a treat, and once your feet could reach the clutch you were expected to be able to drive a tractor.
The notion of having to wear safety boots on a tractor or gloves when handling oils and diesel would have been dismissed as fussiness.
That is slowly starting to change.
And not before time when you consider that farming is the most dangerous workplace.
But unfortunately it will be another nail in the coffin of small and part-time farm operations.
The reality is that making farms safer costs a lot of money.
The immediate reaction of the farm lobbyist to this will be "pay farmers more for their produce".
While you'll never find me objecting to somebody wanting to pay me more for my output, I can't see that ever happening.
Farming is mainly about producing commodities, so commodity prices and trends will dictate what we get paid. Not how much safety is costing on your farm.
Of course there are things that farmers can do to improve the safety on their farms at the lowest possible cost.
I'm lucky enough to be part of a progressive buying group that decided to actively do something about the level of safety on our farms.
Through IFA Skillnets we are able to access safety training with a 30pc discount. That, combined with the bulk purchasing power of a buying group, means that members are able to avail of one-day training courses in things like manual handling, quad-bike and slurry equipment operation for as little as €45 per day.
Having participated in a few of these training sessions myself, I know much of it is common sense that will make many farmers scoff.
But as more and more farms rely on employees to get the work done, it's the day that I'm hauled in front of the judge that I'm really thinking about.
Will you be able to say that you did all that could have been 'reasonably expected' in preventing a serious injury or worse happening on your farm?
The training sessions got a litmus test here when trainers attempted to show my Romanian staff why there was a right way and wrong way to lift a box weighing less than a kilo.
And while I fully accept that many will choose to ignore some if not all the training, it started a conversation here about little things, like how high is too high for people to be lifting crates, and what can be done to modify kit to prevent accidents in the future. That's the start of a change of culture.
It was the working at heights session that left me feeling a bit dumbfounded, though.
Given that falls are one of the biggest causes of deaths on farms, I thought it would be a useful module.
However, I came away from it more disheartened than enlightened.
As an employer, I am not allowed to have somebody working on a ladder.
In order for them to have 'three points of contact at all times' (basically two hands and feet always on the ladder), you can't send an employee up a ladder to change as little as a light bulb.
And the option that many farming operations rely on - the steel box mounted on the front of the loader - won't do either.
The law says that the person up in the air must be able to control their own movements. So now we're talking about a cherry-picker with remote controls.
Not only that, but the operator has to prove that they were trained by a certified trainer, the machine has to be tested by a certified inspector every six months AND the operator has to be trained in wearing a harness.
This in turn has to be certified and inspected every six months... all to change a bloody light bulb!
This is why I feel that safety may become one of the biggest cost challenges ahead for farms to overcome.
The Health and Safety Authority has a big push on farm inspections planned for the coming year.
Both they and farmers have a difficult road ahead.
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