If you work on a farm, statistics show you are less likely to make it home tonight than most other people who are at work today.
Agriculture is one of the deadliest industries to work in, with 36 people killed on UK farms in the period from 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2015, according to the most recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
According to most recent HSE statistics, 33 workers died in UK agriculture in 2014-15, a rate of 9.12 per 100,000 workers. This number is very high when compared with the rate of workplace fatalities across all UK industries in 2014-15 at 0.46 per 100,000 workers.
The agricultural industry average over the past five years is 10.7 deaths per 100,000 workers, compared with a rate of 0.46 per 100,000 across all British industries in 2014-15.
It is a shocking figure, but frustratingly – and despite repeated warnings to farmers about the risks they face – isn’t a one-off, says HSE head of agriculture Rick Brunt.
“The problems with health and safety in farming are no different than they were five years ago.
The causes of these problems have also remained the same: incidents with livestock, contact with machinery and falls from height,” he says.
“The disappointing thing is there’s nothing particularly new in the statistics.
“The causes of deaths are things we know we can manage and deal with, but for whatever reasons farmers are not taking heed of the risks or putting measures in place to prevent accidents occurring.”
Lowest farm fatalities in Europe
While the fatality figures in UK agriculture are high, comparable statistics actually show the UK has one of the lowest rates of farm-related deaths in Europe.
Of all EU countries, only Malta and Slovakia have fewer agricultural fatalities than Britain, while Britain has a significantly lower workplace death rate when compared with Europe’s other large economies – Germany, Italy and France.
According to data from Eurostat, the EU’s office of statistics, 3,674 people died due to accidents at work across the EU in 2013 (the most recent data available).
Of those, 467 were in agriculture, accounting for nearly 13% of the total and making the industry Europe’s fourth most-dangerous after construction, manufacturing and transportation.
The fact this figure does not include non-fatal injuries means the effect of workplace accidents will be much higher, and as there is no Europe-wide method of reporting incidents, the accuracy of data is patchy.
The reasons for the high number of fatalities across European agriculture are no different to those in the UK, according to EU-OSHA, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
About 78% of Europe’s farmers work alone, with almost 60% in self-employment and 44% on temporary contracts – significantly higher figures than in other sectors.
Temporary workers are often employed to do hazardous jobs such as cleaning slurry tanks and are more vulnerable to dangers because of a lack of experience or language barriers, EU-OSHA says.
Self-employed workers are more often victims of fatal accidents, often because working alone puts them under pressure to get jobs done quickly, which means convenience and speed often take precedence over safety.
The similarities in situation and incidence mean it is important that efforts are made across Europe to learn from others and seek ways to improve, Mr Brunt says.
“We have to be open to the idea that we can always learn from each other. We know injury rates appear to be worse outside the UK, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects we can take from other countries.”
The HSE has close links with its regulatory counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, and they regularly share advice.
“The Republic of Ireland run small local discussion groups about agricultural health and safety, and there is a lot of good-quality education and changing of attitudes at these meetings.”
Looking to the rest of Europe, one of the major areas for co-operation is machinery safety, Mr Brunt adds.
“My team are actively involved in agreeing standards to ensure machinery reaches the same levels of safety. We are also working to agree what information goes with machines so people know how to operate them safely.”
In the meantime, the message for farmers in the UK is to use common sense and avoid taking unnecessary risks – particularly as they enter one of their busiest times of year.
“The majority of health and safety issues are no different to managing any other aspect of your business – good health and safety practice should be an important part of every farm business,” Mr Brunt says.
“If there is a job to be done, managing it in an efficient way includes looking at safety features, having the right equipment and having machinery in good working order. All the things that make it safe also make it an effective, well-managed business.”
How are other European countries tackling health and safety?
PreventAgri is developed by organisations from across the green sectors – including farming, forestry and horticulture – to provide workers with safety information and advice on site.
By co-ordinating safety initiatives and gathering information on the latest government health and safety regulations, the scheme audits individual growers and large companies to assess their approaches to health and safety and provide tips on where they can make improvements.
The Lithuanian government’s departments of education and environment organise training courses for people working in agriculture in a bid to reduce the number of deaths in the industry.
The vocational training days offer advice ranging from the basics of construction to using and maintaining machinery safely and installing slurry pits.
For those just setting out in the industry, the Lithuanian government also recommends attending a “principles of farming” course – a 320-hour educational introduction to agriculture, including theoretical and practical aspects of machinery and construction.
Spain’s National Commission on Safety and Health at Work has set up working groups of experts covering specific sectors and activities in agriculture.
The aim of these groups is to analyse accidents in the industry, and assess farmers’ working environments so they can suggest ways to improve the health and safety of agricultural workers.
Germany’s machinery manufacturers decided to tackle tractor safety by developing easy-to-maintain vehicles that limit the risk of injury. They introduced designs that allow farmers and their staff to easily access lubrication points, motors and batteries, meaning routine maintenance can be done more quickly and safely and the intervals between maintenance are longer.
In a further bid to tackle machinery-related injuries, farmers have developed mobile repair workshops that allow maintenance and repairs to be carried out on-farm by professionals.
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