Coroner’s call must be heeded

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This week has seen a coroner recommend the introduction of annual MOT inspections for farm machinery in Northern Ireland.

And the judge in question is absolutely right. When are we really going to take the issue of farm safety seriously in this part of the world?

The coroner in question was reflecting on the tragic circumstances leading to the death of a Co Armagh farmer during the late summer of 2015. Faulty tractor brakes were identified as the cause of the accident.

The reality is that a modern tractor contains the equivalent computing capacity as that used to send man to the moon almost 50 years ago. Moreover, these same vehicles can travel at speeds of up to 40mph on the roads. So why not have them inspected regularly? And the same principle holds for other items of farm machinery such as loading shovels, diggers and top end quads.

I also feel strongly that farm safety should be made a cross compliance matter. The fundamental fact remains that farming is now the most dangerous career pathway to follow in Northern Ireland. This ‘unenviable’ reputation used to be one that hung around the construction sector like a lead weight.

But that all changed, once the authorities decided to get tough with that industry and rightly so!

I remember getting a job on a building site as a student. On the first day I arrived for work wearing a pair of trainers. Five minutes later I found myself being escorted to the front gate by the clerk of works and told not to come back until I was wearing the appropriate foot wear.

That little matter was quite quickly resolved, but I remember that the site received two health and safety inspections during the three month period of my stay.

Let me be clear about this: pushing ahead with lots more farm awareness events and producer-focused training are crucially important, where farm health and safety matters are concerned.

But there has to be balance struck by the authorities between the carrot and the stick approach. I firmly believe that the relevant authorities must take a decision in the very near future to become much more focused in the way they address health and safety standards on farms.

One way that farmers can be made to take more notice of the issue – in a truly meaningful way – is to hurt them in their pockets. Anything that can be done to save even one life, or cut the accident rate on local farms should be given a fair wind.