Farm Ireland

Friday 17 November 2017

There is no easy solution - a new mentality is needed

Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Of the many challenges facing agriculture today, none is more serious or frightening than farm safety. Serious because of the number and gravity of accidents that can have devastating implications for the individual concerned, their family and wider community; and frightening because nobody is really sure what can be done to reduce the number of fatalities.

There is a saying from the 1900s by American merchant John Wanamaker, "half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don't know which half".

Something similar could be said about farm safety. A lot of effort is being spent in trying to improve the situation.

But how do you measure what works?

How do you know when an accident has been prevented or what factor or combination of factors may have been at work?

Farms are intrinsically busy places and, given the constant pressure on commodity prices, commercial farms are likely to become ever busier.

Farms are also dangerous places, involving the use of machinery that is becoming bigger, faster and stronger. Where there are moving parts there will always be wear and tear.

Then there are livestock that, as herd size increases, are becoming less handled and thus wilder. There are more accidents involving livestock, but those involving machinery tend to be more serious.

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However, it is estimated that some 90pc of all farm accidents are preventable.

So what is going wrong?

People know the risks.

Familiarity and complacency are major issues for farmers and farm workers.

Some farmers are really careful most of the time but anybody is still liable to the occasional lapse in concentration or judgement.

However, there are a lot of other farmers who know they are taking chances every day, but that is how they operate.

The running of their farm could be likened to a chain, each link representing a task. Many of these links are at straining point a lot of the time and, every now and again, one breaks.

If or when the farmer recovers, some may change how they function or what they do, while others pick up where they left off, with every link on the chain soon back to being strained.

Then there are the accidents involving children and other visitors to the farm who may be too young to be aware of the potential dangers of a particular hazard or not trained in how to deal with them.

So what can be done about it?

One thing that is clear is that there is no 'silver bullet' solution. A new mind-set is needed. Farm safety needs to become an integral part of how we farm, not an add-on.

But does this involve a fundamental overhaul of the existing approach or some linear changes to the existing one?

Would more carrots work - or more sticks? Far better brains than I have looked at this but there is no obvious solution.

For what it's worth, here are a few of my thoughts.

There has been some negative reaction to the decision of the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) to reduce its number of farm inspections.

This will free up personnel to participate in other farm-related activities such as talking to farmers in a discussion group environment and on farm walks.

But the farm inspections may have been working. No-one can say for sure that things might actually be worse without them. They were just not working well enough.


Indo Farming