‘Policy needs to push safety, health and well-being in farming’

“Europe can tell us how many cows are born every year, but they cannot tell us how many farmers are killed at work.”

Those were the words of Pat Griffin who was speaking on a Health and Safety webinar held on June 17 by the Agricultural Science Association (ASA).

Pat has worked with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) for 30 years and in his presentation he showed harrowing photographs taken at the scenes of fatal accidents. The fatal accidents involved farmers and family members young and old and showed the stark reality of the dangerous environment that a farm can be for those watching.

He told the audience that 214 deaths have been reported on farms in a 10-year period here in the Republic of Ireland, and worryingly a large amount of accidents have occurred in the past number of months when more people have been at home.

Pat stated that agricultural deaths are rising and that fatalities and injuries are not all being accounted for according to his research.

“Official figures state that there are 550 fatalities per year in Europe on farms. However, research that I have done indicates that this figure could be over 2,000 fatalities per year,” Pat said.

So Europe can tell us how many cows are born every year, but they cannot tell us how many farmers are killed at work.

“These fatalities are just the tip of the iceberg. Serious injury and disability is not quantified. Ireland’s improvement across all sectors has been significant running from six per 100,000 to now below two per 100,000. There are many lives that have been saved and this proves that safety, if applied, actually works.”

Agricultural deaths are rising

However, Pat stated that agricultural deaths are rising and agricultural deaths are at approximately 20 deaths per 100,000. He noted that, since the economic crash, Ireland has relied on agriculture and farm deaths have risen.

“A lot of this is due to the expansion in the agricultural sector – increased workloads, fodder crises and the age profile within agriculture.

“Agriculture frequently has 40% of workplace deaths; that comes from 5% of our working population. So farmers and people working on farms are seven times more likely to suffer a fatal injury than in any other sector.

The National Farm Survey will show that there has been an increase in non-fatal injury. If we look closer at this, while we thought we had machinery injury reducing, it has actually more than doubled since 2011.

Pat added that livestock injuries have increased and noted that this is not a surprise as the national herd has increased and so has feeding the national herd.

“We are seeing an upward trend in accidents involving livestock.”

Areas needing urgent action

He stated that areas needing urgent action are that practical skills training is needed for all farmers. He stated that continuous professional development is needed, particularly in the case of tractors, machinery and livestock.

“We need policy on tractor and machinery maintenance, possibly NCTs for all tractors. We need policy on aging farmers, particularly policy to protect their safety. We need retirement packages and/or assistance programmes for farmers.”

CAP

“If we look at issues in Europe, while 40% of the European budget is allocated to the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy], cross-compliance currently involves compliance with over 18 directives and regulations and 15 standards.

“These cover various issues, particularly the environment, food safety, animal health, plant health, protection of wildlife, maintenance of farmland, etc.

However, the safety, health and welfare of farmers and farm families is not clearly considered and is hardly mentioned.

Problems in the EU and the Irish farming sector

Pat emphasised that “education, particularly skills training, is insufficient”.

He added that there are labour shortages in the farming sector and that “farming in Ireland is generally reliant on farm-family labour – young and old”.

Pat stated that in the EU the average reliance on family labour is 76% reliant. However, in Ireland farms are 92% reliant on family labour.

Pat listed some other factors which may be contributing to accidents including the fact that 90% of EU farmers are over 55 years-of-age. He stated that “farmers have high-stress levels from isolation, red tape, paperwork, climate change, environmental concerns, uncertainty in relation to income, profitability and ever-increasing workloads”.

He noted that outside of third-level education uptake on training is poor unless it is mandatory like pesticides training or farm-safety courses for the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS).

Pat added that farmers need training in a host of areas including: smart technology; time management; and first-aid emergencies.

Everyone has a role to play

Pat concluded his presentation by reminding people that everyone has a role to play.

He said: “The pain and suffering experienced by so many farm families following fatal and serious injuries is unimaginable. Sustainability in food production must include a focus on safety, health and well-being of human capital – our farmers and farm families.

“Policy at the highest level needs to push safety, health and well-being in farming.

“We need to stop the grief.”

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