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Jim O'Brien: Every week needs to be a farm safety week


This week is farm safety week, but I suppose every week should be safety week on farms. In the course of my work, I have occasion to visit a lot of farm holdings. While some places may not have been actively farmed for some time, most are described as 'ready-to-go' operations, meaning they are as good as any other farm.

When walking a farm bereft of people and animals, one can see things more clearly than when a place is in full swing. It can be a good time to see the dangers - they stand out.

Those of us born and reared on a working farm can become blind to the risky nature of the environment. Spend a few years away from the place, and when you come back, especially in the company of small children, you see everything from a totally different perspective.

Every barrel of water, every piece of rusty barbed-wire fence, every excitable-looking animal and every unfenced stretch of water is a threat, not to mention the enormous tractors.

Modern farms are highly mechanised places, with buildings rising to significant heights and areas like slatted tanks and slurry pits sinking to significant depths. They are dangerous work places at the best of times and there are many families who live day-in and day-out with the unfortunate outcomes of these dangers, living with pain, loss, regret and blame.

For those who haven't suffered the trauma of a farm accident, there can be a false sense of security - these things only happen to other people.

I would suggest two cures for this: firstly, take a few moments every now and then to think of people you know who have suffered as a result of farm tragedies and some who have died.

It is good to remember that these are and were people like us, going about their business like us and yet… it can happen.

Secondly, recalling near misses can be another cure for false security. Anyone who has ever worked on a farm can recall escaping tragedy by milliseconds or millimetres. I remember working as part of a silage crew in the days when silage was sprayed with acid from a dispenser on the harvester.

Part of the job of those drawing silage was to keep the harvester supplied with this acid, which came in five-gallon containers.

I remember opening the tailgate of the trailer to take down one of these containers and having to rest it against my chest as I eased it to the ground. I was wearing an acrylic T-shirt and while carrying the acid to the silage harvester, I suddenly realised my T-shirt had disappeared. Acid had obviously leaked on to it, and it evaporated from my body into thin air. It could have been my skin.

In the course of silage campaigns, I saw things done that defied the laws of gravity, the laws of mechanics and common sense. The pressure of time and the sight of looming rain clouds made the most sensible of people attempt the most dangerous of things.

During that time, I saw nobody seriously injured, but I saw a lot of danger.

A number of years ago, a friend of mine was agitating slurry and had just started operations when he got a call on his mobile phone.

As he walked around the yard chatting to his caller, he left the tractor and agitator running, but when he got back to the well-ventilated shed where the agitation was happening, six animals lay dead. He would have been among them had he not taken the call.

I know a man who fell from a roof he was cleaning and wouldn't have survived only that an ambulance happened to be passing the road near his yard when the call was made.

The memory of these are seared into my mind and I shudder at them the more I have come to realise that awful things happen to ordinary people. Our lived experience has to tell us that no one is immune to catastrophe.

Of course, there is a balance to be maintained. If we spend our lives contemplating and trying to avoid the dangers of existence, then we will have no life.


The other extreme is to be bullish and overconfident and that too endangers life and limb.

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Last year, I had the privilege of doing some work with a man called Paddy Byrne on his biography. Born near Kyle Hill in Carlow, Paddy left school early due to illness, but after working in the sugar factory in Carlow and other local engineering companies with his brothers, he went on to establish a global engineering business.

The Burnside factories in Carlow and throughout the world are among the major producers of hydraulic cylinders on the planet.

According to Paddy, the foundation of their business was to be found in inventiveness. "This inventiveness was born of a capacity to notice things.

"All through our lives, this capacity for noticing things, keeping our eyes open for new ways of doing things while taking note of the wrong way to do things, meant that our products and our methods were always getting better."

Farm safety could take a giant leap forward if everyone worked on their capacity to "notice things".

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