Working in Farming - Health & Safety - A Farmer's viewpoint

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For those who read my blogs and articles, they will know that I am a personal injury lawyer with an avid [personal] interest in farming. So it comes as no surprise that farming accidents affect me deeply.

Many of those I follow on Twitter and many who follow me are farmers and the like.  One such farmer, Mr Barry Williams, has kindly provided an insight from a farmer's perspective.

Before I let you know what he thinks, let me give you a short synopsis and some hard facts lifted straight from the Health & Safety Executive's website, for which I am grateful:

"Around 430 000 people work in agriculture, which includes farming and use of the countryside. This is less than 1.5% of the working population, yet agriculture has one of the highest fatality rates of all industries and is responsible for between 15% and 20% of all deaths to workers in Britain each year.

The total annual cost of injuries (in farming, forestry and horticulture) to society is estimated at £190 million and around two-thirds of that is due to reportable injuries (£130 million), with fatalities accounting for around another third (£55 million).

Many more injuries are non-fatal. Less than half of reportable injuries across all industry sectors are reported each year; far fewer for agriculture, forestry and fishing. Surveys suggest that only 16% of the most serious injuries to agricultural workers, reportable by law, are actually reported. HSE estimates up to 10 000 injuries annually are unreported. Each one involves costs to the injured person and to the business."

Frightening statistics, don't you think?

Sadly, Barry has been personally affected by an avoidable accident which haunts him daily.  A family tragedy in which a young man lost his life when he was working at height, all due to a hydraulic leak on a tele-handler which the farmer had "not had time to fix". Barry says, 

"Health and safety is hugely important and mostly overlooked on a lot of farms.

I have worked for people at both ends of the scale and some right in the middle of it. There appears to be a misconception that Health & Safety needs to be expensive to achieve. I don't believe that is true, there are many things that employers can do that cost nothing, for instance establishing safe working practices can be as simple as educating your staff as to what's expected of them. It doesn't have to involve costly training courses and expensive equipment. The trick is to use what you have in the safest way possible.

My biggest bug-bear with farmers is the excuse of "Oh well, we only use it twice a year". It is a poor excuse that causes accidents. I have had close calls with poorly maintained machinery. In one incident, an accident could have been avoided by simply replacing an indicator bulb on a tractor.  Staff had asked that it be replaced, but as it was an old tractor it wasn't considered worth repairing. 

There are others who wish to keep their staff safe and healthy.  Fortunately, in my opinion, for as many bad ones there are twice as many who are genuinely doing the best they can with what they've got. These take much greater pride in what they do and how their machinery looks and works. 

Often, however, a farmer is his own worst enemy when it comes to health and safety, rushing round and not giving machinery the maintenance it deserves to operate safely. Sometimes it would only take the simple matter of half an hours work to make a machine safer, and more than likely work better, but they all rush. And the unlucky ones lose feet, hands or fingers. 

I accept that sometimes accidents do just happen.  However, in my experience, they often happen to the same people and often on the same farms. I think this is due to a built in overconfidence mixed with over tired workers. They firmly believe that because they've had that tractor since 1942 they know everything that can happen with it. They forget that the harvest student doesn't know the tractor. Then an avoidable accident happens.

I have had good experiences of health and safety as well. I have been in very tricky situations in grain stores and working at heights, when engineering controls have saved me from falling. Or I have been working with a second person when it may not have been entirely necessary but has made the job a hundred times easier and safer.

Slips trips and falls are the most common accidents in farming, occurring in an environment that is unforgiving and often isolated.  Relatively minor injuries can be exacerbated because they are often not dealt with quickly and safely. Farmers often work alone when the job needs two people.  The emphasis is on getting the job done and to do more work.

The reality of working in farming as I see it is; Farmers are too stubborn to admit they need help, or think they are too busy to wait for help. Some people have no choice but to work on their own. The other reality is that there is a large difference in working practices. Some "fly by the seat of their pants" and think that they are invincible while others are steady and work safely. There is a real mix of attitudes."

Clearly, Barry is frustrated by the lack of conformity amongst the industry.  The misconception that health and safety is expensive and that many accidents are easily avoidable must drive him mad.

No-one should have to work in such circumstances.  The sad thing is that it's not rocket science.  Health & Safety gets such a hard press, but it is basic common sense.  There is also a plethora of information and support available.

The Health & Safety Executive's website is a valuable source of information for farmers and their employees alike.  

See this link for farm safety and health awareness days.

See too "Your essential guide to health and safety in agriculture".

and the Agricultural Industry Advisory Committee.

I truly hope that, one day, all farmers sit up and take notice.

My thanks go to Barry for his time and enthusiasm. Barry is a farm worker in South Cambridgeshire.  He can be contacted on Twitter via @barryjwill and regularly writes blogs for "Farmers Review".

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