New approach needed to reduce accidents

Agriculture is constantly vilified as having an appalling health and safety record.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Office for National Statistics, the rate of injuries in agriculture is higher than in any other industry. With 1.4% of the workforce, we account for 20% of all work-related fatalities each year. These figures would look even more grim if agricultural-linked road accidents were included.

I am not surprised that accident levels and fatalities are so high. Sadly this exists at the same time as swingeing cuts to the HSE budget.

The decreasing number of people employed in agriculture has meant more farmer-owners and seasonal staff being more actively engaged in practical farm operations, plus more reliance on contractors, so the few employees – along with others that remain – are under much greater pressure, working longer hours, and with less support.

Contract staff may have less knowledge of the location and seasonal staff less knowledge of the operation which may in itself contribute to a potentially unsafe workplace.

For full-time regular staff there is often a culture of the “indispensable employee” – the belief, supported by reality, that if a farmer or employee goes off sick with injury or illness there will be no-one sufficiently skilled to get the job done.

This, in turn, creates the potential for accidents and injuries to go unreported, not through a willful act of neglect but through perceived economic necessity and the feeling that the job must be done at all costs. To those outside agriculture, this would be considered idiotic; to those inside, if not heroic, it’s a reality.

Just recently, away from my own workplace, I have heard boasts of people working until two and five in the morning on silaging (these are not shift workers but working round the clock); I have seen a worker standing in a grain bucket repairing a machine, and also had it suggested that the best way to set up a header feed auger is to do it very carefully with the machine running. How on earth do we start to rectify this when many intelligent and skilled people involved in agriculture are happy to be complicit to this nonsensical work practice?

People in most arable and livestock enterprises work ridiculously long hours with resultant fatigue, stress and the potential for unsafe work practices.

It is constantly said that good staff are hard to come by. True, but will we attract new employees into an industry that promises 80-plus hour weeks as the norm? This could be rectified by a more sensible working practice that allows for a reasonable work-life balance which, in turn, reduces fatigue and stress which would reduce mistakes and accidents.

Some answers to improve our poor safety record could include:

* Employing local (roving) safety representatives to help and support farmers

* Making sure there are contingency plans for staff absence

* Discussing management of busy periods before and after operations to get feedback from all involved. Where there are lone workers, a federated system could be employed so all have access to feedback and support

* Training staff in safe practice formally (but all that is often needed is some simple instruction, advice and supervision and support)

* Arranging regular rest-breaks, preferably time off throughout busy periods. (A recent Farmers Weekly Contractor of the Year impressively gave all employees Sunday off, regardless of the demands of the season, weather etc)

If these simple fixes cannot be put in place, then clearly too much is being taken on by too few people.

We all we have a duty to protect ourselves, family members and the general public. A change of attitude and a respect for safety can work.

Farmers Weekly has dedicated a forum thread to health and safety near-misses, so readers can share their stories and raise awareness of potential dangers. See what others are saying and add your comments.

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