Farm Ireland

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Costs cannot be allowed to compromise farm safety as the price may be just too high

John Shirley

Tight profit margins in farming are a major contributor to the dreadful litany of farm accidents and deaths, according to former IFA president John Dillon. He was speaking on a recent RTE Radio 1 Countrywide programme to presenter Damian O'Reilly.

The IFA man is right. Farming on a routine daily basis exposes you to hazards and risks. The cow in the milking parlour can break your arm. Forking silage, dung or hay can do in your back. Long term, the physical work and activity on a farm will wear out a body in a way that will never be experienced by those sitting comfortably in front of a computer.

But farmers, in order to get the job done quickly and at least cost, will also take risks and short cuts.

I'm not talking about the unguarded tractor PTO shaft or the sub-standard wiring or the badly stored spray chemical. Hopefully these issues have been addressed on the vast majority of premises.

Rather I refer to farmers continuing to dose cattle for worms rather than using the more expensive but safer pour-on products. Farmers continue to use stock bulls when the safer but more laborious option would be to use AI. Young bulls are being fed to get a higher margin, even though steers are a safer bet for handling.

Farmers will hang onto a defective old tractor or machine because they cannot afford to trade it in. Farmers will climb and use ladders where it may not be safe to do so but the job has to be done cheaply and at least cost. Sheep will be dipped without the operator donning a special suit, in order to get through the job faster and at lower cost, etc.

Last week I met a small restaurant owner who had received a visit from a Health and Safety Authority (HSA) inspector. The inspector objected to the fact that the restaurant owner had a man up a ladder painting first-floor windows. "How I am going to get my windows painted without climbing a ladder?" asked the restaurant owner. "You either erect scaffolding or hire a cherry picker," he was told.

I came across another incident where a kerbside hedge outside a small business premises was being trimmed. In this case the Health and Safety inspector objected to the fact that there wasn't a second person on hand to warn the pedestrians and other traffic and generally keep look out.

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With the downturn in construction, the HSA is now targeting other areas for inspection but in both of the above cases the Health and Safety inspector had an arguable point. People do fall off ladders and get injured or worse. Hedge trimming, even with hand clippers, can theoretically have an impact on passers by.


The problem is that those businesses are struggling to stay solvent. People don't intend to put themselves or their employees at risk but perfection in safety was not affordable to them.

The dilemma in farming is similar. How does one get the job done without compromising on safety?

John Dillon was invited onto the Countrywide programme to discuss his near fatal accident on a quad bike. The John Dillon family that I know would all be "drive on and don't spare the horses" people and this has been a vital ingredient in building up their farming and contracting business.

John Dillon's accident happened when he was using the quad to round up cattle. He argued that without the quad you would need an army of people to move big groups of cattle from place to place. Margins in beef simply don't allow for extra help on the farm.

The IFA president survived the quad tumble but others have not been so lucky. Already this year there have been two farm fatalities involving quad bikes.

Children on farms also pose a dilemma. The farmyard can be a lethal place for young children. Do you keep them completely away from the yard? This protects them but risks alienating them from farming. Or do you bring them with you and try to teach them good habits from a young age?

My heart really goes out to families who have lost toddlers where the child has wandered under a vehicle. There but for the grace of God, go all of us.

Indeed my heart goes out to all victims of farm accidents. Last year was a horrific one for safety in the Irish farming, forestry and fishing sectors, with 25 fatalities. Those deaths equated to 60pc of total workplace accidents, hitting only 6pc of the workforce.

Interestingly, farming accounted for about 10pc of HSA inspections and inspectors found that only 67pc of farms had a Safety Plan prepared.

This year is looking awful as well, with 15 deaths recorded up to the beginning of August. Half of the farm deaths are related to machinery, with another 15pc involving livestock.

It's scary to hear that for every death, there are 10 serious injuries which impact hugely on life quality. And for every accident there are countless near misses and lucky escapes.

The threat of an unannounced HSA inspection may be extra reason for practising safe farming, but the real motive for taking greater care is the protection of self, family and employees.

A safer farm costs money, but more important is to get yourself into a safe mindset. Look out for the hazards.

Think safety -- even when you're in a rush.

Indo Farming