OPINION: Attitudes to farm safety must change

It is far too normal to have an accident in agriculture.

The event that brought me to this moment of revelation was my husband Jake slicing off the end of his finger a few weeks ago when it got trapped in a trailer door. Don’t worry – he’s on the mend. I was going to say he’s still in one piece but that wouldn’t be strictly true.

The medical staff in A&E dealt with it very efficiently. Their parting advice was along the lines of: “We would like you to rest this. However, we know what you farmers are like, you will ignore our instructions, but if you continue to work and it gets infected, the whole finger will have to come off, so look after it.”

This was very perceptive. Clearly, they had encountered many farmers before and they phrased their advice so persuasively that, although Jake did continue to work, he was very careful.

What has surprised me is how many other people we know have suffered these injuries. At every gathering since his accident, Jake has met several others with similarly damaged digits. Watching them compare notes on their injuries is like witnessing a secret society of gangsters who have all undergone a gruesome initiation ceremony. The causes were usually implements and equipment, ranging from fence-post knockers to combines.

Farming people have a stoical attitude to these accidents. There is a tendency to regard this sort of thing as just bad luck and part of life’s rich tapestry.

Except it isn’t really, is it? Farming is about raising domesticated animals and growing plants. It does not involve keeping man-eating tigers, walking on a high wire or working with explosives. It should not be intrinsically dangerous. Yet we all know several people who have had very serious accidents, and know of others who have lost limbs or even died. Every year agriculture seems to feature at the top of the most dangerous jobs list. Why is this acceptable?

I remember visiting factories 20 years ago as a trainee accountant and seeing strict enforcement of rules on protective clothing, the storage and handling of chemicals and the operation of machinery. There was no big deal about this – it was just part of the job.

I knew from home that attitudes to health and safety were not always the same in agriculture. At the time, the main reasons seemed to be resentment of outside interference, together with an element of overconfidence and in some cases, pure ignorance. Nowadays, I think the ignorance has gone. However, interference from outside bodies is still regarded with suspicion.

Here’s a little test. Recently there was a story about someone who had been prosecuted for using a corn bucket to lift some men to do work on a shed roof.

Somebody had taken a photo and reported him to the Health and Safety Executive. No one was hurt, but he was convicted of a health and safety breach, fined and ordered to pay costs. What is your reaction?

a) How rotten it was of somebody to sneak

b) How mean it was of HSE to prosecute

c) Actually, lifting people in a corn bucket doesn’t sound particularly safe.

If option c) didn’t enter your mind, perhaps you are not giving safety considerations a high enough priority. Most farm accidents arise because people are putting convenience ahead of safety. This has to stop. I, for one, do not want to wipe up any more blood.

Elizabeth and husband Jake – who have two children, Julia and Archie – farm 235ha of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range in Northumberland. They have 520 breeding ewes and 30 suckler cows and went organic in 2001. Brought up on a dairy farm, Elizabeth is an accountant by training, with a background in corporate finance and business appraisal.

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