With schools closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, farmers are urged to take additional safety precautions around their farms to make sure that their children are safe.
With ongoing school closures as a result of the current crisis, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) is concerned that children will now spend more time on farms and could be exposed to more risks as a result.
“Over the last 10 years, we have drastically reduced the number of child deaths on farms,” says Pat Griffin, senior inspector at the HSA. “It’s gone from regularly having six or seven child deaths per year down to one per year, which is one too many. We would say that no child should be killed from a workplace activity on a farm. That should not happen anymore.
“We are hugely concerned that with schools being out and children not getting back to school this year, there is a lot more exposure for kids on farms and a lot more risk.”
The farm is also a home and unfortunately, there is often very little separation between the house and the farmyard. Because of this, farms can be very hazardous places for children. Most child deaths in the farmyard are associated with crush injuries from machinery movement, such as tractors, loaders and other machines and should therefore be off limits for children. Dangerous areas like sheds storing round bales, slurry tanks or silage pits should also be off limits and children need to be properly educated on the risks on the farm.
“We’d definitely encourage every farmer to take time to talk to all their kids and set age appropriate ground rules for what they can and can’t do, particularly now they’re off school for a much longer period and they may be getting itchy feet to get out in the good weather,” he says.
This means setting up boundaries and limits for children of different ages. Very young children should be assigned a fenced off safe play area away from the farmyard and in full view from the house.
Children aged eight and upwards should also have safe play areas, but are unlikely to stay in a fenced off area. These children will generally follow clear ground rules such as a particular point in the farmyard where they should not pass if machinery is operating. They will understand that they must wait there until they can attract the parents’ or operators’ attention. As they get older, risks change and it’s important to identify new dangers or activities that they should avoid.
“Farmers themselves should spend maybe a half an hour walking around the farmyard, with a child’s point of view, looking at how things are and checking whether there are any particular risks that they have to sort out.”
Ladders, gates or heavy tyres that are leaning against walls can all be potentially dangerous if climbed by children and any locations like slurry pits or water tanks should be made safe. Incidents involving these traditionally high-risk areas on farms happen on a yearly basis but they could be easily avoided.
“The main causes of fatal accidents on farms involving children are tractors and machinery,” he adds.
“Sadly, over the years most child fatalities involve children being reversed over by tractors or other machinery, often while going down the yard for a spin. We have a very strict rule that no children under seven can be carried on a tractor or any other farm machinery. Children of seven and upwards can be carried, they must have a designated seat with a lap belt.
“Following these simple rules will prevent children from falling from cabs or being reversed over.”
He added that giving children rides on tractors or other machinery at a very young age can encourage them to run down the yard at the first sound of a machine operating to get another spin. With modern tractors and machinery now being bigger than ever, if the operator doesn’t see them coming, it’s easy for the unthinkable to happen.
Children aged 14 and older are permitted to operate tractors but only on their farm and there are several conditions attached.
They should only operate a tractor if:
“Farm Relief Services (FRS) offer training courses for 14-year-olds and up on the operation of tractors and we would certainly encourage all young lads and girls that are going to be operating tractors to do that course. Of course, it’s suspended at the moment which is a difficulty.”
He advises that parents should have clear restrictions on what children of this age can do.
“I would certainly stress that young lads or girls new to the operation of tractors or machinery must be supervised by an adult at all times and they cannot get involved in operating any machinery that is operated by a PTO.”
They should also avoid driving over land with hazards like steep slopes, river banks, deep ditches or similar areas.
Given the pressure that the health service is currently under due to the pandemic, it is more important than ever to prevent avoidable accidents.
For more information on farm safety, you can check out the farm safety section on the HSA website. There is also a range of free online courses available on the Health and Safety Authority's online learning portal.