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Farms are Ireland’s most dangerous workplaces

Farm deaths rose 20 per cent last year

Farming is the most dangerous occupation in Ireland and farms are its most hazardous workplaces. During 2019 there were 18 fatalities on farms, according to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA). This represented a 20 per cent rise on the 15 deaths which occurred in 2018.

The HSA has also highlighted the age profile of those killed as a cause of serious concern. Older people are exceptionally vulnerable to death and injury on Irish farms, according to the statistics, with 13 victims during 2019 being over 60 years of age, with 10 of these over 70 and two over 80.

“When you look at the Health and Safety Authority reports, they really highlight the fact that agriculture is the most dangerous work sector,” says FBD Insurance chief commercial officer John Cahalan. “There have been 16 fatalities so far this year, two in the first week in September alone. There could be up to 30 deaths this year and that is really shocking.”

He also points to the risks to young children. “Three children have passed away this year as a result of farm accidents. It’s a really, really serious issue. They are extremely busy, extremely stressed, and it’s an extremely dangerous occupation. Machinery accounts for 25 per cent of fatalities and livestock for 42 per cent. It’s a very, very dangerous work environment and the machinery keeps getting bigger. Farmers just have to slow down.”

The structure of the industry is part of the problem, according to Teagasc health and safety specialist Dr John McNamara. "It's a very challenging sector," he says. "Farmers are self-employed and whether they take a risk depends on themselves. We need to change the culture of the industry in that regard, that is a clear issue."

The ageing population is another challenge. “Half of the farming population is over the age of 58,” McNamara notes. “There is strong research evidence to show that the risk of a fatal accident goes up as you grow older. That is the challenge. Last year there were 18 fatalities and 11 of them involved people over the age of 65. Geodemographics plays a strong role in farm accidents. Over a three-year period 46 per cent of farm fatalities were in people over the age of 70. Older farmers are really at risk. That’s the first challenge, the age structure of the industry.”

Culture also comes into play, according to Cahalan. “Culture and behaviours are important, and we are working with customers and with the farming organisations on that,” he says. “The acceptability of unsafe working behaviours and practices is very much a cultural thing. All of us operating in the industry have a part to play in addressing that.”

Nature can be a reinforcing factor. “Look at the weather at the moment,” says Cahalan. “Lots of farmers are working extremely long days getting crops in. That will lead to fatigue, and fatigue causes errors in work practices and accidents. Tight timelines force farmers to work quickly and cut corners, particularly this year. I am quite worried about the implications of Covid-19 on the overall economy. Like everyone else, I believe farm incomes will be down this year in line with the economy and this will put pressure on expenditure on things like machinery maintenance. That can only lead to poor outcomes.”

Total health approach

Teagasc adopts a total health approach. “We carried out a study on farmers’ cardiovascular health and the results were quite poor,” says McNamara. “That’s associated with accidents as well. Mental health and stress are other issues. Financial and non-financial stress combined with long hours and poor working conditions can also lead to accidents.”

The organisation runs courses and seminars on safety awareness and the topic is regularly high on the agenda for farm discussion groups. “We suspended our courses due to Covid-19 and we are looking at how to restart them at the moment,” he adds.

FBD is involved in a number of initiatives aimed at tackling the issue. “We offer a free risk assessment for marts,” says Cahalan. “We have seen fatalities in marts with farmers loading and unloading animals. The animal can kick out or whatever. We are working with marts to ensure the safe loading and unloading of animals. We also run safety seminars in agriculture colleges around the country.”

Many of these activities are organised and sponsored by the FBD Trust, a philanthropic organisation established to support and advance the interests of Irish farm families and their communities.

“The trust promotes farm safety at farming community events and works in conjunction with Teagasc and IFA to develop seminars on the issue,” Cahalan adds. “We have a big research programme running in Moorepark in conjunction with Teagasc. This is looking at the trauma associated with accidents and how people have to live with the implications of that.”

FBD also produced nearly 100,000 safety signs which have been distributed free of charge to farmers through its branch network.

“We take it very seriously,” he continues. “FBD is the main sponsor of National Livestock Show in Tullamore and we run live safety demos as part of that. A lot of our activity is aimed at getting the message out there that farmers have to slow down and understand the risks they run in their business. FBD was founded by farmers and part of our role is to educate the farming community on issues like this. We are going to continue doing that.”

Of course, farmers should have insurance cover in place for when accidents do occur. Cahalan advises them to be aware of the fine detail of their policies. “I would ask people to read carefully the terms of the cover they are taking out and buying,” he says. “Employers liability is an important case. A lot of farmers are employing people part-time and they need to understand the limits of their indemnity and what and who is covered. Are family members covered, for example? Farmers should look at the policy very carefully. They should pay the same attention to this as to every other aspect of their enterprise.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times