July’s “Farm Safety Foundation Farm Safety Week” (24-28 July), supported by the HSE, is some way off but it’s not too early to start planning for this opportunity to renew links with existing clients and offer support to potential clients. The NFU offer five days of themed practical advice and guidance in the hope of improving the parlous safety record in the agricultural sector – the current 9.12 deaths per 100,000 workers is six times higher than in construction. There were ten fatalities in February this year alone. Risk assessments are still not universally carried out, adequately or at all, and on-site training specific to the individual business is patchy. Many farm businesses, small and large, would benefit from targeted support to enable them to meet their obligations under the HSWA.
Key areas for preventative advice are COSHH, working with machinery and at height (as in so many other sectors) but working with livestock, and dealing with members of the public on agricultural sites are slightly more niche areas.
Where businesses have been passed down through families there is a dangerous tendency to do things as they have always been done rather than incorporating modern strategies to reduce risk. This can be particularly apparent in animal-handling practices inherited rather than taught. Cattle are the riskiest livestock, unsurprisingly in view of their size. One of February’s deaths was a farmer killed when unloading cattle. The HSE have published detailed guidance on what they consider proper handling facilities and equipment, and specific instructions in relation to handling bulls. The guidance is focused on avoiding crush injuries and seems basic, but the regular death and injury of workers on beef and cattle farms shows that many would benefit from assistance in this area.
There are also particular risks associated with the storage of slurry and grain. The dangers of gas from slurry pits are well publicised, but an equally grave danger comes from grain storage tanks. Earlier this month a small Norfolk farm company was fined £50,000 after the owner’s son died when he sank into tonnes of grain while cleaning a storage tank. He could not raise his head above the grain and suffocated to death. The company pleaded guilty to a section 2 offence. Standing on static grain to clean the tank it is stored in is a common practice and another example of a longstanding technique rather than a safe one.
Farmers and farm companies must now be increasingly careful to avert risk from livestock by displaying warning signs and, in some cases, to fencing off public rights of way. The HSE have made it clear that the level of knowledge of safe interaction with farm animals that can reasonably be assumed on the part of members of the public is virtually nil. The onus is on the farm business to provide information where there is a likelihood of aggressive behaviour from stock. As a result, the sort of signage that has long been common where bulls are in fields with cows is now also best practice where cows are grazing with calves.
In December of last year, Brian Godwin, a Wiltshire beef farmer, pleaded guilty at Swindon Crown Court to a section 3 HSWA offence after his cattle trampled a walker to death. There had been four earlier incidents over the preceding decade in which six people were injured, and the farmer had been required by HSE officials to keep cows and their calves away from public rights of way and/or to put up warning signs to inform walkers that the cows, protective of their calves, could be dangerous. He had not done so. There was a clear risk to people on public rights of way. The farmer received a twelve-month suspended custodial sentence and was ordered to pay the HSE’s costs, some £30,000. No small sum for a farmer in the current agricultural climate. As with all matters of health & safety, it is vital for a farmer to be able to demonstrate that he has given careful thought to compliance. The HSE recommend that reasonably practicable precautions for those keeping cattle with calves at foot in fields where the public have access include:
- considering whether is is reasonably practicable to temporarily fence alongside the right of way;
- offering an alternative route (although this does not remove the right of access to the existing route);
- feeding away from the right of way to reduce the likelihood of cattle congregating there;
- displaying warning signs at all access points.
Children on farms are also a source of risk. Very many farms have responded to tough times by diversifying in ways that require an increased level of access by children (and adults unfamiliar with farms); open farm days, lambing days and school visits, for example. It is crucial for farms to assess risk (with a clear paper trail) and to consider what areas of the land will be open to the public, what livestock can be involved and how the public can be kept away from other areas (including the muck heap). The potential transmission of E.coli O157 from animals to visitors is also a crucial risk area. General cleanliness is important, as are adequate handwashing facilities and safely segregated eating and play areas. Handing out a risk assessment to responsible adults is a good idea, as is a brief health and safety talk at the beginning of any visit.
The Farm Safety Foundation and Farm Safety Week will provide good opportunities for the enterprising health and safety practitioner to offer preventative advice in all of these areas.