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We could reap a very bitter harvest if we compromise on issue of farm safety


Busy Times: Philip Whitford, Ballyellen reseedeing 12ac with Master Crop Extended for Philip Donoghue, Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Roger Jones.

Busy Times: Philip Whitford, Ballyellen reseedeing 12ac with Master Crop Extended for Philip Donoghue, Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Roger Jones.

Busy Times: Philip Whitford, Ballyellen reseedeing 12ac with Master Crop Extended for Philip Donoghue, Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Roger Jones.

No matter what way it's spun, the decision to cut safety inspections on Irish farms this year - of all years - flies in the face of reason.

Just over a fortnight ago, the HSA revealed shocking statistics that confirmed just how dangerous Irish farms had become.

Last year, they revealed, was the worst year in over two decades for farm deaths. In total, 30 people lost their lives (five of them children) over the 12 months - an 87pc increase in the number of fatalities on 2013.

Behind those statistics were heart-rending stories of grief and loss which left 30 families and legions of friends across the country devastated.

The HSA itself was rightly flexing its muscles, talking of introducing punitive measures through stiff regulations to tighten up safety on farms. There were even suggestions, from European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan, of making payments of grants contingent on application of safe farming practises.

If anything, the soundings had many in the farming community bracing themselves for a raft of draconian interventions in response to the horrific death toll of 2014. Privately, some were even expressing concerns that these could go too far and would be impossible for farmers to implement or adhere to.

Therefore, it was with absolute incredulity that we learned that not alone had spending on farm safety initiatives by the HSA reduced in 2014 but, to our absolute shock and disgust, inspections would be reduced by 20pc in 2015.

Not just that but the ante - and rightly so - is to be upped, it seems, in other sectors. However, farming last year accounted for almost 60pc of all industry-related fatal accidents. It was far and away the most dangerous workplace, with 30 deaths compared to construction, which saw eight deaths.

When one factors in farming's continuing intensification the picture becomes even more alarming. This year that intensification will accelerate as milk quotas end, heralding an increase in milk production of anything up to 50pc over the next decade or so. An increase of 50pc more milk is likely to equate to 50pc, or thereabouts, more animals, feed and - ultimately - danger on farms. What type of message does this send to the farming community? Moreover, what does it say to 30 families devastated by events of 2014?

In an era dominated by over-regulation and excessive red tape, any organisation with the word 'Authority' in its title - even when its preceded by Health and Safety - is not going to be universally well-received by farmers. So the last thing farmers expected was that inspections would reduce.

However, before anyone rushes to condemn the HSA outright - or the very good people working there - we understand that the root cause of this decision goes beyond any decision at executive or other level in the HSA.

Our information is that budgets and staffing levels in the authority have been slashed year-on-year in the downturn. Where once they had almost 200 staff, they are now down to 164. That's 164 staff working not just in health and safety on farms, but across all sectors.

When you drill down deeper you will learn the shocking truth that there are just five health and safety officers working exclusively in agriculture. Yet there are 139,000 farm units. That's a mere 27,800 farms per HSA officer. Hardly a figure to justify cutbacks.

Look to the resources set aside for An Bord Bia's food-assurance programme. They have 100 assessors for the 139,000 farms. On the face of it, food assurance is 20 times more important than farm safety! Perhaps these 100 assessors, or indeed, Teagasc advisors and Department of Agriculture cross-compliance inspectors could also play a role in basic safety checks?

The issue with regard to resourcing of the HSA rests with its parent department, the Department of Jobs Enterprise and Innovation.

Midway through 2014, in recognition that we were in the midst of a dreadful year for farm safety, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney announced a €12m fund for farm safety initiatives. It would appear that Minister Coveney's absolute engagement on the issue needs to be extended across the Cabinet table.

We established Embrace FARM last year as a bereavement support group to assist farm families affected by fatal accidents. But, such was the death toll of 2014, that - thanks to encouragement from other families touched by tragedies and the ABP Food Group, which put their financial support behind us - we also took up the torch on farm safety also and launched a video campaign titled 'What's Left Behind'.

The title of the campaign and the stories told through it - the latest of which is with a young mother-of-two who lost her husband on St Patrick's Day last year just one month after the birth of their second child - are available on our Embrace FARM Facebook site and articulate just how dangerous farms can be.

Jobs Minister Richard Bruton would do well to view these harrowing stories and he may then understand what, indeed, is left behind. It may move him to arm the HSA appropriately to tackle the crisis situation that farm safety is.

Irish Independent