Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Saturday 20 January 2018

Rise in fatal farm accidents looks set to worsen

Analysis: Safety on the farm

Fatalities: In 2013 50pc of farm fatalities, or eight out of 16 deaths, were due to machinery accidents.
Fatalities: In 2013 50pc of farm fatalities, or eight out of 16 deaths, were due to machinery accidents.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

The vital importance of farm safety is accepted by the vast majority of farmers. But the number of fatal accidents has not fallen and the situation could actually be set to worsen.

Farm accidents are a worldwide issue and what happens in Ireland is similar to elsewhere. Different countries have different systems of reporting, but the chilling reality is that someone working on a farm is up to 10 times more likely to be killed in the course of their job than the general working population, making it one of the most dangerous occupations, alongside mining.

There have been many farm safety campaigns and warnings over a long number of years but, since 2008, 127 people have been killed on Irish farms.

Behind this figure are real people; real lives, and deaths that have wreaked devastation on loved ones.

The only country which has managed to effect any improvement in farm safety seems to be Britain.

A spokesman for the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) pointed out in these pages last week that Ireland has tried "to replicate all their initiatives but to no avail."

Looking at Britain, it seems to me that the improvement has been primarily among workers rather than the self-employed, who would account for the vast majority of those working on farms in Ireland.

Unfortunately, recognising what causes farm accidents and actually preventing them is not the same thing.

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To my mind, it's not that farmers are carelessly complacent, rather that there are a number of key issues which make the farming situation unique and which are unlikely to change any time soon.

Most farmers are self-employed and work on their own, so help may not be readily to hand if something does go wrong. Some practical advice on this that I came across is to inform someone what you are doing and to always carry a charged mobile phone in your pocket.

Then there's familiarity. The first time that you drive a particular road you are very careful; everything is unknown, so you are wary that danger could lurk around the next bend or over the next hill.

But, the next time, because nothing amiss happened the previous time, you are a little bit less cagey. Wind this on, transfer it to the farmyard and by the time you are walking past the same place for the thousandth time this year alone, chances are that any hint of wariness will have long worn off. Farms pose a unique combination of hazards and even if warning sensors are triggered by recognised threat, there can also be danger in the mundane.

Complexity

There is also the complexity of running a farm, by which I mean that not only is a farmer trying to run a business and be the physical worker, but he is usually trying to do both of these things at the same time.

While a farmer might get away with being a jack-of-all-paperwork-trades, it is a different matter when it comes to handling machinery, which continues to increase in size and complexity.

Tied into this are time pressures. Farmers work long hours. Margins are not big, so people are always trying to get some job done and corners are often cut. Tiredness impairs decision making, slows and dampen responses.

Accidents can happen early Friday evening, late Tuesday morning or just an ordinary tomorrow afternoon.

They happen in bad weather but also in good. For while harsh weather can create dangerous working conditions, people tend to be busier in good weather, the feel-good factor of which can dull the warning lights.

The removal of dairy quotas next year will lead to expansion in this sector and will make a lot of people even busier.

Also, critically, the farmer's home is also the place of work, so there is usually not a clear distinction between home and work; one is supposed to be a place of relaxation, the other requires a constant level of alertness.

I hope this does not sound facetious, because it is not meant to be, but if people were to do a simple thing like putting on a particular hat or even cap when they are entering a farm, could this help to spark a different mindset?

The mix of home and work also means that many children are often on the farm ... and also often older people. Unfortunately, the proportion of both older and younger people killed in farm accidents is alarmingly high.

With regard to children, one interesting suggestion I came across is that farmers could 'zone' their yards so children could gradually become accustomed to the different areas.

Age is recognised as a major factor in farm accidents and the average age of Irish farmers is increasing.

While being in the prime of life and the full of health is an obvious plus, it can also nurture a sense of invincibility, which no-one ever is on a farm.

Patrick Griffin, the HSA's senior inspector in this area has said: "Given the demographic of farming with aging farmers, the lack of training, the predominance of self-employed individuals, unfortunately I predict an increase in the rate of fatalities, serious injury and ill-health among EU farmers if some major policy shifts are not undertaken."

Among the options which have been mooted is extending the general EU workplace health and safety directives to the self-employed, directing specific funding for agricultural health and safety initiatives from Pillar II and the linking of health and safety requirements to the direct payments process.

So, would these reduce farm accidents or would they stretch already-stretched people further?

In terms of running safety campaigns, a few research findings from elsewhere that struck me as potentially useful were that farmers were more likely to engage where information imparted is of immediate and practical benefit to them, that they are most likely to get involved when training is provided in places that they will already be gathered and that they prefer to be taught by other farmers rather than general health & safety experts.

A final word, about a new group, Embrace Farm, which has been set up by Brian and Norma Rohan from Shanahoe, Co Laois, after Brian's father Liam was killed in a farm accident in 2012.

Liam was a well-known and highly respected dairy farmer whom Brian describes as "one of the most careful men going" who "ran a model safe farm".

They hope to offer emotional and practical support to those who have lost someone in a farm accident.

Their first event is an ecumenical service which will be held in the Holy Rosary Church, Abbeyleix at 2pm on June 29. For more details see www.embracefarm.com

Indo Farming