Macho culture partly to blame for accident record

Another year passes and another 34 families are left to mourn the loss of loved ones who have fallen victim to fatal accidents on farms.

Despite the Health and Safety Executive’s best efforts, farming now causes one in 10 workplace fatalities in the UK, yet accounts for less than 2% of the working population.

Over the years, HSE campaigns have included graphic films and photographs of farm accidents accompanied by poignant quotes from grieving relatives. From January 2009, the HSE ran the “Make the promise – come home safe” campaign, which involved it posting a knot of red and green baler twine to farmers to hang in a prominent point on the farm to remind everyone to take extra care. All to little apparent effect.

HSE chairwoman Judith Hackitt is frustrated with agriculture’s stubbornly high number of fatalities. Her impatience is particularly understandable given the great success the HSE has enjoyed in reducing the number of fatalities in other industries such as construction.

She correctly describes the recent figures for farm fatalities as “unacceptable”, but I worry about her bald remark on Radio 4’s Today programme that: “People in farming don’t have minor injuries. When they get injured it’s bad.”

Perhaps Ms Hackitt’s comments were part of a wider interview and she was heavily edited, but if she is trying to understand farming’s appalling safety record, she needs to be clear that farming remains a profession where under-reporting of “minor injuries” is extremely common. She also needs to realise that for every fatality or serious injury there are innumerably more near-misses.

I was reminded of this recently by a farmer who told me about how he narrowly escaped being crushed by a cow that had just calved. He needed to ear-tag her calf, but did not take the precaution of first shutting the cow in a separate yard. He put the tag in the calf’s ear, which made it bellow, and before he knew what was happening the cow had squashed him into the deep muck. Had he been lying on concrete he said he would certainly have been killed but he played possum until the cow trotted away after her calf. The farmer was bruised and battered, but did that incident make it into the farm accident book, let alone get reported to the HSE? I suspect he just had a cup of tea to calm his nerves and went back to work. How many of us do not have similar stories to tell? Farmers often work long, solitary hours with unpredictable animals, driving heavy complex machinery. Conscious of the clock ticking and the limited weather windows to get essential jobs done, there are always temptations to cut corners.

So Ms Hackitt, for the avoidance of doubt, people in farming do have minor injuries. As I suspect you already realise, it’s the serious injuries and fatalities that you always get to hear about. You once said: “If I had sons I would not want them to work in agriculture.” But by confining yourself to the notion that it is only sons that might want to go farming, perhaps you (unwittingly?) hit on the nub of the problem – farming’s male-dominated, gung-ho, get-up-and-get-on-with-it macho culture.

As it happens, I only have daughters. Whether any of them eventually decide to go farming is as yet unclear but, as well as more HSE initiatives, perhaps more women in the industry might just be an important part of the key that finally unlocks the door to a more enlightened approach to farm safety.

* Stephen Carr runs an 800ha (1,950-acre) sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife, Fizz. A third of the acreage is in conversion to organic status.

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