Heydon interview: ‘What can happen on farms can keep you awake at night’

Minister of State Martin Heydon is the first minister in the history of the state to have farm safety included as a specific area of responsibility in his portfolio.

At the time of Minister Heydon’s appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for new market development, farm safety and research and development (in July, just after the new government was formed), Ireland had just come out a spring that saw a higher frequency of farm fatalities.

Two months later, and with a lot happening in the agriculture sector right now, the issue of farm safety has nonetheless not gone away.

In a wide-ranging interview with AgriLand journalist Charles O’Donnell this week, Minister Heydon stressed that the “unacceptably high” level of farm fatalities and accidents required a “significant change of culture”, but not necessarily with stricter enforcement.

I’m really conscious that you have to bring people with you, and the best way to do that is more ‘carrot’ than ‘stick’.

“If there is too much ‘stick’ you end up in a situation where the farmer thinks it’s a negative, and thinks ‘this is another inspector coming in on top of me’, while the farmer is working in difficult conditions because of price, weather or time pressure,” the Kildare South TD explained.

“The cultural change that needs to happen is that farm safety needs to become a first thought in every task, and not an afterthought. There are a number of ways to get to that.

“At present, I’m meeting different stakeholders, who all have views. There’s an awful lot of people involved in farm safety who are passionate about it, and I think we need to bring that together a little bit more,” Minister Heydon said.

Peer-to-peer support

The minister highlighted the potential of peer-to-peer support, where farmers would work with each other to identify health and safety risks on each others’ farms – though the roll-out of this initiative has been hampered by Covid-19.

“The idea is that farmers would switch… So I would switch with a farmer in south Kildare, they would visit my farm, and we’d analyse the safety and risks on each farm.

“When you’re used to your own farm, and you’re working around it everyday, you become used to the hazards and maybe you don’t spot them,” Minister Heydon added.

‘Laissez-faire attitude in the past’

“In the past, it’s always been said ‘ah, that was a close one’. Farmers need to know that this is not acceptable, and we need everybody in that farming family and the farming community to say ‘you need to fix that issue with the tractor, you need to fix that safety hazard’,” Minister Heydon argued.

He added: “We’ve had a laissez-faire attitude to safety in the past, and this is changing, but it needs to change quicker…my gut instinct is very much one of collaboration and working together.”

Children

One of the most sensitive issues in the whole farm safety discussion is children, and when it’s appropriate for them to be on the farm – and when it isn’t.

“I do think farms have to be more off-limits to children…what makes farms different than other workplaces is that the family home is in the middle of it.

I have three young boys at home who want nothing more than to be out on the machinery or around the calves – everywhere that’s dangerous. You try to send them into the back garden to kick ball but it’s just not as attractive for them.

“I’m not saying this is easy…but we have to make a clear distinction between dangerous areas where farming activity is happening and where there is machinery; and another area that is safely designated for children to play in.

“The fact is that 80% of fatal accidents involving children over the last 10 years have involved machinery or vehicles, and the three farm deaths of children this year have involved machinery or vehicles,” Minister Heydon highlighted.

“This is heartbreaking and – I say this as a farmer and a father – it can keep you awake at night.

When I was a young lad, myself and my cousins got up on my uncle’s load of bales and we travelled back on the trailer. That is not acceptable now. If a farmer was seen to have kids up on a load of bales going somewhere, he’d probably be arrested.

“We have to make that change…and even media outlets need to be aware of that as well…that it just needs to be unacceptable, so in time when it does happen – like with the load of bales – that people would look and say ‘that’s not right’… If any of these measures save even one child’s life, then it’d be worth the hassle and aggro it might cause.”

Concluding his remarks on the issue of farm safety, Minister Heydon stressed: “Kids won’t lose out because of this…there are lots of ways to teach them about farming and the great way of life it is without having them in a tractor or on a quad… That’s a change we all have to bring about.”

Stay tuned to AgriLand over the coming days for more from our interview with Minister of State Martin Heydon…