DEATHS IN farming have dropped to the lowest ever recorded, but the figures have been “overshadowed” by the tragic events at Morecambe Bay, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

There were 30 fatal incidents in farming in 2003/4, not including the 21 migrant workers who died in February, down from 38 last year.

Six of those who lost their lives were farm employees, down from 15 last year, while 17 were self-employed farmers and there were seven members of the public who died in accidents on farms.

“If this is a definite downward trend then employers are to be congratulated,” said HSE head of agriculture and food Roger Nourish.

“But the fatal incident rate among the self-employed on farms has more than doubled in the last 18 years, and that is where the problem lies.”

He blamed the rise in self-employed deaths, which peaked in 2001 at 18 per 100,000, on farmers who had been forced to lay off staff and had taken on extra responsibilities and extra stress themselves.

“There is a deeply embedded culture in farming of unwise risk-taking, which can have fatal consequences.

“We can‘t deliver this country‘s aspiration of sustainable food and farming unless farmers are alive and well – I personally feel passionately about this.”

But if the fatal incident figures included Morecambe Bay, the rate would have risen to a “wholly unacceptable” 25 per 100,000.

“This confirms that agriculture is the most dangerous of any larger industrial sector overseen by the HSE,” said Dr Nourish.

“We are determined that society learns the lessons of Morecambe Bay.”

He said that the HSE was “actively involved” in ensuring that the health and safety issues surrounding casual and temporary labour are properly addressed.

This includes targeted farm inspections and work to assess who is working in what circumstances.

The HSE also launched two internet-based initiatives aimed at improving on-farm safety, which have both been well received by farmers involved in pilot studies, said Dr Nourish.

The downloadable software package and an interactive e-learning “farm safe” program are available via the HSE website, www.hse.gov.uk/agriculture/index.htm.