Keep your farm safe for kids

Think of a family farm and warm images spring to mind:

Dads teaching their teenage sons and daughters how to lamb a ewe, mums and kids bringing out lunch to the combine driver, toddlers peddling their toy tractor with gusto around the farmyard.

But an unwelcome guest that we don’t much like to talk about stalks this pleasant scene.

It’s the spectre of accident and injury — to children as well as adults — that lurks in the shadows every time we start up a tractor, put a ladder to the side of a barn or let the bull out of its pen.

The number of children who die in accidents on UK farms each year has dropped steadily over the years and in the year April 2004-April 2005 none were killed.

But the toll of eight deaths since April 2005 is alarming the Health and Safety Executive and health professionals alike.

For every death there are also many serious accidents involving both the farmers’ own children, and sometimes their friends or other members of the public who happen to be on the farm.

But fear of prosecution by the HSE means very few are reported and what figures there are tend to be estimates.

This year’s child deaths included a two-year-old who drowned in a sheep dip, another two-year-old who fell out of a tractor and a five-year-old crushed against a wall by an ATV.

A teenager was poisoned by a pesticide, two teenage boys died in a barn fire, a child died from ingesting or absorbing a veterinary medicine and a 13-year-old was killed on a tractor used in the garden.

The HSE is careful not to jump to conclusions over the sudden rise, especially since many of the individual investigations are still on-going.

But Nottingham-based HSE inspector Bernardine Cooney notes that most of the fatalities happened in areas of greatest hardship and thinks that the continuing lack of profitability in farming may be one of the root causes.

This manifests itself in a number of ways, she points out. Lack of cash means maintenance on tractors and other machinery is put off, handbrakes aren’t adjusted and tractors are more liable to roll.

Moreover, with employed labour all but gone in some parts of the country and wives taking jobs off-farm, there may not be the manpower available to look after small children.

Childcare is often too expensive or simply not available.

But not all the blame can be laid on time and money pressures and Ms Cooney believes long-entrenched attitudes among farming families mean that safety still isn’t given the priority it receives in other industries.

“What came out when we consulted farming women about safety was that the distinction between the farm as a home and as a workplace appeared blurred,” she says.

“Farming families appreciate that there are risks but these are risks they have grown up with and have come to accept.”

The relationship between low incomes, lack of childcare and a heightened chance of accidents is also apparent to Jayne Needham and Linda Syson-Nibbs, an environmental health officer and public health nurse who work together as part of the Farm Out health project in Derbyshire.

They run one of the few courses around the country specifically aimed at reducing child deaths and injuries on farms.

It’s a free course, takes place once a year and usually attracts 20-25 people.

Most are farming women and their husbands but there’s usually the odd grandparent and even a nurse from the A&E department at the local hospital learning about the particular types of accidents encountered in agriculture.

The format is a simple one.

On the first half-day course, Linda or Jayne use a farm tour to outline the main hazards and describe the basics of health and safety legislation.

Then everyone on the course is encouraged to go back to their farm, have a wander round and spot areas where there might be some hazard.

The second part of the course takes place a week later.

There’s a chance to ask questions raised when you went round your own farm, plus a talk about farm-related illnesses and a solicitor who can answer legal queries.

Four years of running these courses has opened her eyes to some of the attitudes and practices underlying farm accidents, says Jayne Needham.

At the root of it all is a feeling among farmers that their children grow up on farms and are therefore able to look after themselves.

That may be true to some extent, but the fact that some 50 children have died on UK farms since 2000 suggests that it’s not something to rely on.

Like the HSE’s Bernardine Cooney, she believes that lack of time and money is putting pressure on farmers to allow children to accompany parents when working, especially during the school holidays.

“The trouble is that farmers don’t have the help they used to, they don’t have the time and they’re taking more short cuts,” she says.

“The wives may worry, but their husbands will say ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’ or ‘There’s no way round it’.”

Farmers do worry about farm accidents, she adds, but almost greater is the fear of prosecution by the HSE or being sued by a member of the public.

“I have had parents tell me that they have taken children to hospital because of an accident on the farm but have lied about the cause for fear of prosecution,” she says.

“That means the nurse or doctor is looking for the wrong signs.”

In fact the HSE will often issue a warning rather than prosecuting, especially if it’s a first-time offence, or just bad luck, or the injury is a less serious one.