Those in attendance at the National Conference on Farm Safety and Health were posed with the question ‘are the lives of farmers less important than those of others in society?’.

The question was put to the conference attendees by Prof. James Phelan, the chairman of the Farm Safety Partnership Committee.

Prof. Phelan asked the question as he spoke about the national response witnessed leading up to ex-hurricane Ophelia in October.

“I was listening to all the information going around on storm Ophelia. There was very significant investment by the National Emergency Co-ordination Unit and state agencies from top to bottom to limit fatalities from ex-hurricane Ophelia – which unfortunately resulted in three; any fatality is too many.

Ex-hurricane Ophelia to date has resulted directly in two farm fatalities, where people were trying to repair storm damage and got killed. I believe there was a third, so we have the same number of fatalities occurring from ex-hurricane Ophelia as we had from the hurricane itself.

“What have we heard about it? Have we all been inundated with information around the farm accident fatalities? We have not.

“So where is the multi-agency response to investment to reduce fatalities in farming? Or do we leave it all to the voluntary sector? Are the lives of farmers less important than the lives of other people in society?”

Fatality trends

During the conference, Prof. Phelan gave a presentation on ‘Understanding Fatality Trends for Future Action’. Between 1989 and 2016, a total of 522 fatalities have been recorded relating to agriculture, he explained.

With machinery still by far the biggest cause of fatalities, there are two clear vulnerable groups, Prof. Phelan said.

Considering the older age group – 67-years-old and upwards – the professor outlined that there is a “clear shift towards a greater percentage of fatalities amongst older people in agriculture”.

“Those killed: are mainly farmers; are mainly killed on the farm; are mainly cattle farmers; and machinery and contact with living organisms or humans and buildings are the main cause of those fatalities – particularly for the older group.

“It’s not surprising. I was thinking to myself this morning that I’m coming into that age category, or I’m in it.

What’s changed with me over the last number of years? I know it in the morning when I try to put on my socks; I’m a little bit slower now that I used to be. I also know that when I’m sitting down and I go to get up that it takes me a couple of seconds longer.

“For me that’s not a problem. But for farmers, for older farmers, that is a major problem. Not putting on their socks; but their ability to be able to get out of the way in those first few seconds when they are out on the farm and someone is reversing.

“10 or 15 years ago they were gone and out of the way; now they don’t have that ability. So their ability to be able to move in critical reaction time is down,” he said.

Young people

The other group that Prof. Phelan indicated as being vulnerable was children under 15-years-old. Over 50% are being killed by being struck by an object in motion, mainly a machine, he added.

We all know that machines have got bigger, with more blind spots – that’s not surprising. They (children) are the dominant category amongst those being drowned and asphyxiated. They are the dominant category amongst those being killed by slips and falls.

“But, surprisingly, over 40% are killed in a non-farm environment. The annex next to the house; a lot of kids are killed in what is classified as that area.

“So progress in reducing fatalities across categories has been limited. There are improvements regarding machinery, bulk waste as well as fatalities caused by slips and falls. The percentage of fatalities associated with buildings and animals has increased, and are associated mostly with the farm work environment,” Prof. Phelan said.

Taking place in the Auburn Lodge Hotel in Ennis, Co. Clare, the National Conference on Farm Safety and Health was hosted by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and Teagasc. It was also supported by the Farm Safety Partnership and FBD.