An Open letter from the HSE chair

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I was prompted to write this letter after reviewing the recently released statistics on fatalities in the workplace, where once again agriculture is shown to have one of the worst rates across all sectors.

This year made even more poignant in the light of some of the recent deaths on farms involving young people.

I feel compelled to write this letter because it is clear there has been little real improvement in managing risk effectively on farms. While there have been some in-roads and improvements made by the industry, the recent rise in the number of fatalities, although subject to natural variation, concerns me.

The infrastructure of farms and the equipment used becomes ever larger and more sophisticated but is no more or less dangerous than that being used in many other industries where risk is being managed much more effectively. I wonder why agriculture cannot improve in the same way, especially when many of the incidents follow very similar patterns.

There is no doubt farming is a complex working environment where large machinery is the norm and time is a precious commodity. However, it is an industry where farmers and their families are at the heart of the operational decision making yet appear to put less value on the health and safety of themselves and their workers than other industries. The agriculture industry has a rate of fatal injury about 18 times higher than the average across all other industries. I can imagine that with around thirty deaths a year in a workforce of approximately quarter of a million, there is a feeling that despite the tragedy of such events, the calculation of ‘it won’t happen to me’ puts health and safety down the list of priorities. However, if one considers the figures for significant work-related injuries and ill-health, the odds become dramatically more worrying. The chances of someone working on a farm today receiving a work-related injury or health problem over a five-year period is around one in 10.

As a farmer’s son who grew up on the family farm in the 50s, 60s and 70s, I have a genuine desire for the agriculture industry to grow and thrive safely. As a child I once saw the result of an incident where all the onlookers felt the victim should have known better, but at the time I wondered why anyone hadn’t told him he was doing it wrong if it was so obvious. Since the time I lived on the farm, I see that many of the risks aren’t new and the ways to manage them are well known. For example, regulations to safeguard children on farms and guards that protect workers from parts linking machinery have been around since the 1950s, yet 60 years on children are still dying on farms and farm workers are still being killed by moving vehicles and equipment.

While some progress has clearly been made on these issues, the culture across the industry remains a problem. Farming organisations and agricultural colleges recognise there is a problem but collectively the question should be how we can get health and safety into the minds of everyone working on farms each and every day, as is the case in many other business areas.

The sentiments in this letter are ones of concern, and to some degree frustration, that messages are not getting through. When an incident happens not only is it usually a family tragedy or linked to someone in a close-knit working group, but it frequently has significant impact on the financial health of the business.

The Act under which the HSE carries out its activities, charges us to ‘prevent death, injury and ill-health at work’. The key word is ‘prevent’ but of course we have regulatory powers to reinforce this role. Far too often in HSE we arrive at a farm when it is too late, because an incident has occurred. In my experience as a duty holder in heavy industries, safer businesses are usually more productive and more profitable because people are doing the right thing at the right time.

My plea through this letter is for everyone working in agriculture to think every day about the ‘prevent’ word, listen to the help and look out for the guidance which is available not only from ourselves, but your industry bodies and colleges, so as you go about your business you think in ways that keep you and your workforce running a successful business safely.

Faithfully

Martin Temple, HSE Chair