Farmer Murphy shows how he keeps his farm safe

Health and safety inspection on Termonfeckin farm – from slurry tanks to roofs

It is a glorious summer’s day as dairy farmer John Murphy shows Health and Safety Authority inspector Martina Gormley into the milking parlour of his family farm near Termonfeckin, Co Louth.

Like many farmers, the Murphy family have doubled the size of their herd since the lifting of milk quotas. They now milk about 170 cows twice a day as well as breeding their own calves and managing impressive amounts of feed and slurry. It is a routine which requires repetitive movements of large animals, and the use of plant and machinery. Lots can go wrong and it is a constant watching job to make sure that nothing does.

In the milking parlour, the farmer and inspector discuss how somebody might get into the stainless steel tanks to clean them; the importance of ventilation when using chemical cleaners in confined spaces; the need to ensure electricity is switched off; and that trip switches are tested at least twice a year.

Murphy is ahead of the questions, pointing out waterproof covers on the fuse boxes and trip switches and has his mandatory Farm Risk Assessment Document filled out and at the ready. It itemises what the risks are, what action should be taken to avoid them and notes the dates when machinery was last serviced.


Later he will show the inspector his slurry tank with its safety, ventilated manholes which open only onto a grid to protect anyone – adult or child – from falling in.

Safety exemplar

Is it possible that he has been chosen for this demonstration of farm safety because he is an exemplar?

“No, no, we are all learning safety all the time,” Murphy replies somewhat bashfully.

But suddenly his face drops.

“Those bales could be stacked a better way,” Gormley remarks as she walks towards a barn.

“Those are just three bales high. Is that not right for round bales?” he asks.

Gormley explains that where space permits it is best to store round bales just one high, not stacked, and on their flat sides. However, she says if round bales must be stacked, the safest way is on their curved sides and stacked on top of each other, then no more than three high, pyramid fashion.

In this way the outside bales would need wedges under them to stop them rolling away. “But you or a child can’t fall in between them trying to rescue a cat, ” explains Gormley. “When flat bales are stacked, the weight may not be evenly distributed within the bale and they could fall.”

As the inspection continues Murphy explains his plans for expansion which will see new, larger sheds for the animals with transparent panels in the roof to allow for natural daylight into the operations below.

“You will be careful about that?” asks Gormley.

Murphy assures her he will, recalling the death of a fellow farmer who dropped just three metres through a roof light while walking on a roof. “It was in the way he fell,” he explains.

The risk to children’s safety is a major concern, says Gormley, adding that on many farms now, one of the parents works off-site.

This leaves one parent on the farm minding children and working at the same time. “You have to have a dedicated safe area for them to play and they shouldn’t go outside that,” she says.

And the list goes on. Corrugated sheeting for sheds is weighted down with heavy tyres.

“That was done for a recent storm,” says Murphy.

A wall is cracked from where a cow, or numerous cows, pushed against it.

“It is coming out anyway in the expansion,” Murphy explains.

Hydraulic cables on the tractor are examined for wear “because if they split when the tractor is running, they release hot oil under pressure”. If you are handling it at the time it can go through skin and potentially result in gangrene, Murphy says.

Asked about the cost of all this safety work, Gormley responds: “If you have to do work that is dangerous then you have to question is it worth it.”

She adds, however, that it is never money that is at the root of farm fatalities.

Rather, it is usually a decision to do something differently, to break a routine, to change established safety practices. She recalls the story of the man falling through the roof – “money had nothing to do with it”, she says.

Although her inspections are backed up by law – her recommendations must be acted upon – Gormley says farmers are usually happy enough to see her. “It can be lonely enough and the hours are long and physically demanding. Many farmers are glad to share their story and get some recommendations,” she says, reaching for her notebook.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist