Opinion

HSA is working with one hand tied behind its back

Martin O’Halloran, the chief executive of the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), went on radio earlier this week to discuss the significance of the 200 unannounced farm visits that will be carried out by his inspection team.

Up to a point, this activity is extremely laudable. But the big let-down for me remains the lack of genuine power that HSA representatives have when it comes to really setting farmers back on their haunches – subsequent to serious breaches of the health and safety code being unearthed.

We need a fundamental change in mindset within Irish agriculture when it comes to tackling the health and safety epidemic that is unfolding around us.

The official figures, regarding farm accidents, are bad enough. But what about those incidents, occurring on a daily basis, that are never reported?

I am not convinced that the HSA issuing warning letters or imposing enforcement notices on farmers if, let’s say, a piece of machinery is found to be defective, really gets us over the line.

Of course, ongoing education (regarding the need to maintain the highest health and safety standards on farms) is important.

But, at some stage, the Irish Government will have to get tough if it wants to get on top of this national problem.

One way this could be achieved is to make health and safety a cross compliance criterion. This would mean that at least 5% of Irish farms would be inspected on an annual basis.

Such an approach would also bring with it the threat of fines linked to a proportion of farmers’ basic payment being imposed – where health and safety breaches are identified.

Bringing cross compliance into the health and safety debate would also give farmers greater reason for taking the matter seriously, rather than paying lip service to it.

I am fully aware of the pressures that farmers are under, particularly when it comes to silage time and those periods of the year when they have an opportunity to get slurry out. But nobody can be so busy that they can’t think through the various aspects of health and safety – prior to commencing any job of work.

Anything that can be done to reduce the carnage on our farms is worth looking at. The reality is that what’s been tried in the past has not worked. We need a different approach; it’s up to the Government to take the lead.