The most dangerous job in Ireland


Three members of the Spence family died in a farming accident last weekend. Drowning, poisoning and electrocution are just some of the risks of the job

THE DEATHS OF three members of the Spence family in a farm accident in Co Down last Saturday has provided a stark reminder of just how dangerous farming is. In the past six years, 102 people have been killed in farm-related accidents in this State; the equivalent of one death every three weeks. It’s difficult to think of any other job that presents such an array of risks, including gas poisoning, electrocution, drowning, being crushed by machinery and being attacked by animals.

Farming used to vie with construction in the league of the State’s most dangerous occupations, according to Health and Safety Authority inspector Tommy O’Sullivan. “But construction got quieter and unfortunately agriculture is our number one.”

Last year 22 people died in farm-related accidents, and 14 deaths have been recorded in the State so far this year. Of those, eight involved machinery and three were caused by livestock.

One involved a slurry tank and the remaining two were as a result of being trapped or crushed. O’Sullivan says many accidents involve spur-of-the-moment actions with disastrous consequences. Instinctively reaching into a machine to grab something or standing between a cow and her newborn calf might not even register if luck is on the side of the farmer. “The difference between a fatal accident and a minor accident can be half a second or half an inch,” O’Sullivan adds.

Sean Malone, a Wicklow farmer, blames a spur-of-the-moment action for his accident. He was crushed by a big bale when he tried to move a sheep and lamb out of the way as the bale fell. “Over not spending 30 seconds to stop and think, I had lost 20 years, probably the best years of my life,” he reflects in a video of survivors’ stories made by the Health and Safety Authority.

The authority recently noted an increase in the number of accidents involving tree-felling. “That’s a trend we are concerned about. It could be related to the fact that people are trying to find fuel for themselves because of rising fuel costs,” said O’Sullivan.


THE NEWS THAT Noel, Graham and Nevin Spence died after being overcome by slurry fumes brought uncomfortable memories flooding back to Eoin Goldrick this week.

About five years ago the man from Killimor, Co Galway, was agitating slurry when he was overcome by fumes. “I was the lucky one,” he says repeatedly.

A hard crust forms on slurry, and it must be broken up by an agitator before spreading. For safety reasons, the access point to the tank is outside most new slatted sheds to prevent the gas building up in a confined area. Gases such as hydrogen sulphide, methane and carbon dioxide can escape as the material is agitated.

By using the agitator outside the shed Eoin Goldrick believed he was perfectly safe. He noticed a large lump in the tank and tried to break it. “It was just like there was a pocket of gas in the lump. All I remember is a cloud and that was it. I was on the ground,” he says.

He was immediately blinded by the gas and couldn’t open his eyes. “I was crawling on my hands and knees.”

A colleague arrived and found him vomiting on the ground. He spent more than a week in hospital.

“They were scraping layers of scum off my eyeballs. To be honest, I don’t remember the pain in the first two days, because I didn’t know where I was, but on the third day they came in to wash out my eyes and it was awful painful.”

He had constant headaches for about three months afterwards. Even now, he marvels at how quickly it happened. “It’s a silent killer, that’s the only way I can describe it.”

Last weekend his blood ran cold when he heard the news about the Spence family. “That was just horrific. The tears were coming out of my eyes. I was just thinking, how lucky was I? A lot of people don’t get a chance like I did. I was one of the lucky ones.”


NOT MANY farmers would willingly be photographed for a national advertising campaign without their shirts but Norman Bradley is different. In the HSA ad, the bare-chested farmer looks directly into the camera, half of his arm clearly missing.

“Everybody says it’s brave, but I don’t think so. I did the ad campaign because I thought it could help. There’s no way of judging it, but I hope it does.”

His accident happened at about 7.30pm at his home in Fenagh, Co Carlow, several years ago. He was working at a machine that chops sugar-beet when the chopper caught a plastic bag he was holding. “My first reaction was to grab the bag. Within a split second, my arm was gone in up to my elbow. The shear pin, which is like a weak link in the chain, broke and the machine stopped then.”

He had to be cut from the machine. “My arm wasn’t cut off, it was mangled, so they had to amputate that, to slightly above my elbow.” He found the psychological blow much worse than the physical injury. “I think it took at least a year for me to psychologically cope with actually losing an arm. The first time I saw myself in the mirror I fell back on the bed, I got such a fright. But when you pass through every season and get through the year, things start to get better.”


A LOOSE-HANGING piece of cloth caused Peter Gohery, a Galway farmer, to lose his leg almost three years ago. His accident involved a PTOshaft – a driveshaft between the tractor and machine.

During the fateful day in October his knee had started to come through a waterproof section of his overalls. In frustration he cut the material off but left a piece hanging. Later he was standing between the tractor and a machine when the loose piece of material became entangled in the PTO shaft. It dragged his leg in and he was flung sideways, breaking his arm in the process. “I looked down and saw that the leg was taken off me,” he recalls.

He spent three months in hospital in Galway, followed by 16 weeks in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire.

“It takes a while to get used to it and get going again, but you just have to make life more suitable for yourself,” he says. “Farming is a tough life, even with two legs, but when you have one it’s tougher.” He says farmers often don’t see the dangers of PTO shafts because they work with them for so long.

It still rankles that, after working for so many years in farming and construction, he was not entitled to disability benefit because he was self-employed. He was advised to work for someone else for a few years and then reapply. “How many hundred thousand people are on the dole with two legs? How did they expect me to find a job with one leg?”

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