Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 March 2018

'There's always a fuss when there's a rise in farm deaths - but does anything change?'

Peter Gohery, speaking at the All Island Farm Safety conference in The Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan. Photo: Rory Geary.
Peter Gohery, speaking at the All Island Farm Safety conference in The Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan. Photo: Rory Geary.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

There are many similarities between farming in different parts of the world.

I have just read a powerful short story set in Australia. Two 11-year-old boys, Sam and Digby, live on neighbouring grain farms.

Maddison Smith tells a not-unfamiliar tale of a relaxed outdoor upbringing. Where Sam went, Digby followed, climbing trees, exploring wheat silos, joyrides on tractors, "though they had never acted too impulsively".

One hot day, Sam said he wanted to jump in the silo again. It always gave them a great adrenalin rush.

They knew about the dangers of playing in silos but they were playing safely, weren't they? One would jump in and they would see how far they could sink before the other would throw in the end of a rescue rope kept on the top ledge.

Digby wanted to get it over with. "You always get to go first, now its my turn," Sam reasoned and stepped back to take a great leap into the wheat. "No, wait!" Digby cried, and jumped in first.

Or so he thought.

With a sickening jolt, he realised they had both jumped almost simultaneously. The rope was still coiled on the ledge "like a sleepy brown snake".

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The story describes what subsequently went through the boys' minds. Sam relished the excitement of their situation, not fully realising its peril. Digby thought of his city cousin, Tom, who was probably playing a video game. Then of how his father's brother had died in a farm accident. This happened over 20 years before Digby was born and the distance of time had diluted the moral of the story.

"For the first two hours, the two boys drifted in and out of consciousness in their struggle to stay afloat, barely exchanging words. It was another six hours before Digby's father found them, trapped under five feet of wheat, motionless."

I was stopped in my tracks by this story, at its poignancy and universality.

From the start of 2006, up to the time of writing, 209 people have died on Irish farms. Some years more die, sometimes fewer. A lot of young people get killed, as do a lot of older ones. Often due to encounters with machinery or livestock. Patterns, statistics, details - at the end of the day, every number is a real life. It's an unrelenting saga of heartbreaking loss, to themselves, their loved ones, the community, the global farming family.

Whenever there is a spike in fatal accidents, there is always a flurry of fuss - but does much really change?

In 2009, Sweden began a programme to help farmers manage their own occupational safety.

This involved the training of 185 mentors, three-quarters of whom were farmers themselves, who undertook individual farm visits. In the following five years, fatal accidents in the sector dropped by 45pc.

However, Peter Gohery of Embrace FARM points out that the death rate on Swedish farms is again on the increase, funding for the programme having dried up. A proposal on a similar programme for Ireland has been submitted to the EU.

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