Health risks at work – how to stick to the rules

Behind the headline agricultural accident figures, hundreds more employees are injured or suffer long-term ill health.

In addition, fines, lost work hours, reduced earnings and bills to rectify problems amount to an annual cost exceeding £200m for farming.

See also: Safe farms, safe staff and visitors – a guide to legislation

We look at guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the legislation covering staff safety in the workplace.

We talk to Oliver Dale, managing director at workplace safety specialist Safety Revolution, about key health issues and maintaining worker wellbeing.

Mr Dale believes most ill health issues are caused by a combination of poor planning, ineffective risk assessments and a stubborn attitude.

“Ill health may draw less attention than a dramatic accident, but it can creep up until it becomes a life-changing issue.

“Sadly, it is often the stubborn attitude that persists on farms that causes workers to ignore these potential risks, particularly when the danger seems less obvious,” he says.

A good manager should spell out risks, explain what to do to minimise them and create a culture where staff take a pride in their own wellbeing.


Health: CoSHH

A key tool is the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (CoSHH).

It is the main legislative measure covering issues such as zoonoses (infectious diseases that jump from a non-human animal to a human), exposure to chemicals, dust, machinery noise and vibration.

These include: 

  • Cleaning agents
  • Fertilisers
  • Pesticides
  • Veterinary medicines
  • Welding fumes
  • Dust
  • Slurry gases
  • Bacteria and fungi.

Under CoSHH, where a farm’s general risk assessment has not covered hazardous substances, employers must carry out a range of assessments and actions to ensure workforce safety. 

Employers must:  

  • Assess risks from hazardous substances 
  • Prevent exposure 
  • Reduce exposure when impossible to prevent it
  • Ensure protection controls and equipment are used and maintained 
  • Monitor health routinely and regularly
  • Train employees about the risks and precautions
  • Ensure supervision is provided
  • Have a plan to deal with injuries, incidents and emergencies.

Importantly, employers must demonstrate that they are aware of the health status of each team member, says Mr Dale.

“Knowing whether people are particularly sensitive to a potential substance – for example, if they are asthmatic – will guide the assessment and minimise the individual risk,” he adds.

Employers should regard CoSHH as a way of providing practical and detailed knowledge of a risk, Mr Dale says.

He advises producing the assessment on single sheets of A4 which should be placed at the site of the task or risk, like a grain shed or medicine cupboard.

“It could take the form of an instructive, bullet-point dos and don’ts list, so it is quick and easy for any worker to appreciate the risk and what is safe practice,” he suggests.

Respiratory problems

Respiratory issues, ranging from irritation and inflammation of the nose, throat and lungs to asthma and bronchitis, are mainly caused by dusts, fumes or chemical vapours.

CoSHH stipulates that workers must be protected and that advice and instructions on the manufacturer’s label or data sheet should be followed.

The assessment should focus on eliminating the risk, with protective equipment seen as the last line of defence, says Mr Dale.

  • Change to lower-dust products such as granules or pellets
  • Use screens or shields
  • Vacuum spillages instead of sweeping them
  • Use a local exhaust ventilation system when welding
  • Fit and maintain appropriate filters in cabs
  • Wear the correct respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

“It is important to tackle dust immediately because workers may quickly become sensitised. 

Once that happens, health risks become greater and management yet more complex,” he warns.

Employers should also consider the effect of facial hair. “Stubble or a beard means a basic face mask is rendered completely useless to the very fine dust particles which are the major risk to the lungs,” he says.

A more complicated respirator may be needed for these workers.


Diseases that can be passed from animals to humans are known as zoonoses and are caused by bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses.

Diseases include:

  • Leptospirosis or Weil’s disease
  • Enzootic abortion (Chlamydia psittaci) in sheep
  • Cryptosporidiosis
  • Q fever.

CoSHH assessments must include zoonoses and cover animal handling, vaccination and personal hygiene. Pregnant women must avoid in-lamb ewes because enzootic abortion can cause miscarriage.

Leptospirosis has flu-like symptoms, but quickly develops into a serious infection.

“Time is key and farmworkers should seek early attention if they are concerned,” says Mr Dale. “They should also explain to doctors or health workers that they are from a high-risk occupation.”

The HSE advises farmers to minimise infection risks by vaccinating against diseases like enzootic abortion. It also says suitable protective clothing should be worn when handling infected animals or material.

Woman feeding lamb with bottle

© AdobeStock/Goodluz


The key legislation here is the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, requiring employers to assess risks to hearing, reduce noise levels to within legal limits, provide hearing protection and limit exposure to noise. Training and education must also be in place. 

Machinery operators and livestock keepers can suffer permanent hearing damage when exposed to high noise levels. Damage can be suffered by regular exposure which has a cumulative effect. 

Noise is measured in decibels (dB) – legal exposure levels which must not be exceeded are:  

  • 87dB for daily exposure 
  • 140dB for peak noise.


The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 aim to protect workers from the risks to health from exposure to vibration. 

Power tools can lead to hand-arm vibration syndrome (Havs), which includes vibration white finger, nerve, muscle or joint damage. A further syndrome – whole-body vibration – is caused through operating machinery across rough ground or by working near powerful machinery such as mills or rollers.

“Havs can be debilitating and painful. Picking up on early signals like loss of sensation and aches will prevent serious injuries and downtime in the future,” Mr Dale says.

He suggests workers should wear shock-absorbent gloves when using power tools and staff should be rotated to reduce exposure, allowing breaks and cutting down trigger time.

Pesticides and veterinary medicines

As well as CoSHH regulations, pesticides are controlled by legislation under:

  • The Plant Protection Products Regulations 2011 and the Plant Protection Products (Sustainable Use) Regulations 2012. The legislation means only pesticides which have been approved can be stored and used in the UK. These are listed on the HSE website.
  • Biocidal Products Regulations and the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 Products approved for UK use are listed at on the HSE website.
  • The Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013 control use and supervision of operators – for example, when dipping sheep.


Pesticides can be harmful – direct contact or exposure to fumes can cause skin irritation, long-term ill health or even prove fatal.

Pesticides should only be used if absolutely necessary. Storing, handling, application and disposal must all be subjected to a risk assessment.

The HSE advises planning pesticide applications carefully, including a contingency plan to cope with emergencies and a record of all use.

Operators must read the label. Failure to do so and to follow instructions is an offence and could lead to prosecution. Employers must also ensure operators wear the correct protective equipment as stipulated in the product data.

All operators must be competent and have received instruction or training.

Certain pesticides are authorised only for professional use and the operator must hold a certificate of competence or be supervised directly by a certificate holder. Regular users are advised to receive formal training.

Veterinary medicines

Veterinary medicines can cause significant ill health and injury through contact with the skin, exposure to fumes or accidental injection.

Employers must ensure workers are competent, properly trained and formally instructed to use a specific vet medicine.

It is an offence under the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013 to dip sheep without the presence of someone who holds a nationally recognised certificate of competence.

Further suggested precautions include:

  • Selecting water, rather than oil-based, vaccines
  • Switching to a pour-on or injectable product rather than dipping sheep
  • Using properly designed dipping equipment
  • Effective restraint of animals
  • Using a needle guard to reduce risks of needle stick injuries
  • Disposal of sharps and spent products in accordance with instructions.

Vet medicine reaction

Anyone who suffers an adverse reaction to veterinary medicine must contact the Veterinary Medicines Directorate’s Suspected Adverse Reaction Surveillance Scheme.

Urgent medical attention must be sought if any worker injects themselves with an oil-based vaccine.