Sadly, the new figures published by the Health and Safety Executive last week brought no surprises.
Every week I read on social media, or in Farmers Weekly, about somebody suffering a life-changing injury or worse – and the figures reveal there were 29 work-related fatal injuries in agriculture in 2017/18. Our industry has the highest death rate of all the main industry sectors.
Farm Safety Week, which starts on 16 July, is a reminder of how many organisations are doing great work to reduce the fatality and injury levels, but the figures remain grimly high.
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The reality is, we’ll only improve our safety record if there’s a culture change. Many farmers think that health and safety simply means time-consuming and expensive bureaucracy. It doesn’t.
Staying safe is often about making improvements, rather than necessarily doing everything perfectly.
The HSE often uses the term “as far as is reasonably possible”. You can never, for example, totally eliminate the risk associated with a bull, but you can look at your handling systems or pens. If you can’t eliminate a risk, you can still try to reduce it.
Having grown up on a farm, I know it’s vital to be realistic and to come up with practical solutions.
Turning a tractor engine off and taking the key out of the ignition when you get out of the cab can save a life.
Ditto having a laminated piece of paper to put on the seat or the dashboard if you’re working under the machine, telling other people you’re there. Such things are so easy to do – why wouldn’t you do them?
If the figures are to fall, farmers will have to treat health and safety with the same priority they would managing any other critical area of their business – whether that’s a disease outbreak in their crops or livestock, or a pressing financial concern.
Any loss of life, of course, results in an unimaginably huge human cost. But what’s often forgotten is that even minor injuries can have a financial implication, too.
It might seem cold-hearted, but if it takes focusing on the financial consequences of you or a member of your family being temporarily or, heaven forbid, permanently out of action to better appreciate the importance of health and safety, then do this. People are, after all, your business’s most valuable asset.
Some farmers are really keen to prioritise this subject. Others never quite get around to it. Some might not think it applies to them because they’ve never had an accident. It’s easy to become blind to hazards if you’ve done things in a certain way for a long time.
The first step in acquiring this new mindset and to look objectively at your situation is through a risk assessment.
When I do them with farmers, we identify hazards, then assess the likelihood of each one happening, along with its potential severity. This helps us decide the priorities.
Everyone has the right to return home at the end of each working day and, if I can stop one person from being killed, then my career will have been worthwhile.
It won’t happen overnight, but more farmers need to stop viewing health and safety as a tiresome chore that gets in the way of them farming.
Prioritising it might be the one thing that precisely enables them to carry on farming – rather than become another statistic in next year’s grim HSE figures.