Complacent livestock handlers risk death

Over the past 10 years, an average of one person a week has been killed by an on-farm accident – and that includes the deaths of 81 people working with livestock.

Six workers have died during the past year when dealing with farm animals – three trampled to death by cattle and three after being attacked by bulls.

While two of the victims over the past 12 months were members of the public, three were farmers and one was a self-employed welder who had offered to help a farmer move a bull from its pen.

And behind the formal statistics there is a vast number of unreported “near misses” as well as many instances where farmers and their staff have narrowly avoided non-fatal accidents directly associated with livestock – and not just cattle.

The Health and Safety Executive says non-fatal farm injury data is grossly under-reported. It’s estimated that only 25% of injuries to employees are recorded and only 5% for the self-employed.

Delving into the mass of data compiled by the HSE covering fatal incidents over the past two years on livestock farms reveals a great number of injuries caused by cattle that have knocked over farmers who have later died from the head injuries they sustained.

These incidents, says the HSE, highlight the use of unsafe handling facilities or a poorly planned system of work procedure.

“Familiarity with individual cattle can lead to complacency, especially when handling bulls. A number of accidents, some fatal, happen every year because of a failure to treat bulls with respect. Remember, a playful bull can kill you just as easily as an angry one.”

Cattle handling

Handling cattle is undoubtedly the most high-risk livestock job when it comes to accident rating. Although individuals – both farmers and members of the public – have been killed by cattle in fields, it’s cattle in confined spaces being moved or handled that present the greatest risk.

Animals perceived to be quiet or to have shown no previous signs of being dangerous, all too often lead to those who are dealing with them to adopt a relaxed approach to personal safety. The HSE says dealing with cattle always involves a risk of injury from crushing, kicking, butting or goring.

The executive urges farmers never to never underestimate risks, even when good precautions are in place.

“Familiarity with individual cattle can lead to complacency, especially when handling bulls. A number of accidents, some fatal, happen every year because of a failure to treat bulls with respect. Remember, a playful bull can kill you just as easily as an angry one,” says the HSE.

Bull attacks

HSE statistics also highlight several bull attacks to farm staff and a number of unwitnessed deaths of farmers in fields where cattle were present.

Safe handling tips 

  • Read HSE livestock handling information
  • Don’t undervalue the need to undertake a risk assessment when handling cattle
  • Don’t attempt cattle handling jobs of any kind single-handed
  • Ensure animals being dealt with can be safely contained at all times
  • Don’t over-excite animals when handling them either singly or in numbers
  • Never turn your back on yarded cattle
  • Have strict guidelines for all involved in dealing with bull beef – particularly bedding and feeding
  • Check all crushes and gates are secure prior to every handling job
  • Follow all public safety guidelines when cattle are grazing on a public footpath.

Deaths to members of the public almost exclusively involve walkers on footpaths through fields where cows and calves or maiden heifers are grazing – and often when the victim was accompanied by a dog.

And while cattle present the highest personal risk, dealing with the inherent unpredictability of any livestock when being handled or moved can lead to personal injury caused by falls on slippery surfaces, being barged or even underestimating the potential danger of rams in confined spaces.

 The HSE believes that injuries and deaths resulting from farm livestock are attributable to any of a host of underlying reasons.

While the unpredictability of livestock is a key issue in all accidents, the situation that actually gives rise to the accident is more than likely to have been accentuated by an assumption that health and safety issues are nothing more than “red tape”.

A dangerously relaxed attitude towards correct handling facilities and inadequate staff training are also major contributory factors.


Case study: Jereme Darke, Dorset

Dorset vet Jereme Darke suffered severe injuries during a freak accident in January. While routine on-farm TB testing, one of the cows he was testing kicked a metal gate. The gate swung into Mr Darke’s face – inflicting facial injuries, causing a brain haemorrhage and fracturing his skull.

Mr Darke, 45, is a director of Synergy Farm Health and is now making progress after the accident and is able to take short walks unaided. But the incident has triggered a new approach to assessing accident risks by the team at his Dorset practice.

“It was a freak accident, but it has made us all look at things from a new risk perspective,” says Andrew Davies, managing director of Synergy Farm Health.

“It has made us more aware of the risks that may not always have been apparent but are clearly there. Adopting a protocol based on a sensible and safe approach to avoid accidents is something the team is now very keen to work to put in place,” he adds.

“It’s simple things like not treating animals that have been allowed to become excited or stressed or if they’ve just been driven in from the field. Allowing them time to calm down and settle creates a safer environment for stock and people.

“We are encouraging our vets to assess the safety elements of situations they are working in and to look out for anything that may be dangerous. They need to ask themselves what the potential dangers are. Is the loose catch on the cattle crush safe to work with? Are those gates tied really securely? Are those sharp edges on that pen or gate a risk to anyone? Are the cattle totally contained and relaxed before work begins?

“It’s important to always be aware of the risks that may not immediately seem obvious.”

Case study: Lawrence Haygarth, Cumbria

Lawrence Haygarth is a well known Cumbria cattle breeder from Penrith who has one piece of advice for farmers dealing with cattle: “Never let your guard down.” He was badly gored by a bull that left him with ruptured lungs, 17 broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and damage to almost every vital organ in his body.

After gouging out the eye of the “normally quiet” British Blue bull during the attack, it was only by feigning death that the bull finally retreated.

“I was checking the heifers and although the bull had always been a bit noisy he was quiet on this occasion. He crept up behind me and threw me 10 feet in the air and before I landed he hit me again,” says Mr Haygarth.

“He was determined to kill me. He bored me into the ground and I felt my ribs snapping like carrots. My lungs were filling with blood and I was gasping for breath.

“He got me behind a wall and I managed to gouge out one of his eyes to try and stop him but it was only when I stopped moving that he backed off.”

The alarm was raised by Mr Haygarth’s 11-year-old grandson Alfie Green who was in the next field – but it took skilful low flying by the air ambulance helicopter crew to scare the bull away before Mr Haygarth could be treated.

“I thought I was going to die. I was staring at the bull’s face as he gored me. Anyone dealing with cattle, no matter how confident you are, should never assume there are no risks,” says the 69-year-old

Livestock 2012 Farm Safety Demos

This year Livestock 2012, incorporating the Dairy Event, will be running a Farm Health and Safety Demonstration area. Sponsored by John Deere, the practical demonstrations, running consecutively over both event days, will feature four scenarios that represent the main causes of fatality on-farm today. The scenarios will demonstrate the risks associated with poor health and safety practices and highlight the causes and consequences of accidents as well as demonstrating the correct safe approach. Find out more about the event, which takes place on 4 and 5 September at the NEC, Birmingham, at