Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) chief executive Robert Kidd is quick to confirm the innate dangers associated with all forms of agricultural activity.
“Most farms in Northern Ireland operate as family-owned businesses,” he said.
“There is considerable stress associated with farming at the present time. Most farmers spend many hours working on their own. They are often under considerable time pressure.
“There are also the very obvious dangers inherent in working with livestock, farm machinery and slurry.
“When all these factors are considered it’s hard not to conclude that farming is a high-risk way of life, from a health and safety point of view.”
Kidd firmly believes that the best way to ensure that the highest possible health and safety standards are achieved by farmers is courtesy of ongoing education and awareness campaigns.
And, in taking this approach, he is quick to draw a distinction between agriculture and other industrial sectors, adding:
“In the vast majority of farm accidents, the main bread winner of the business is directly affected. Contrast this with the likes of the construction industry where, for the most part, we are talking about accidents involving employees.
“We have six agricultural inspectors visiting farms across Northern Ireland on a regular basis. A high proportion of these visits are un-announced. In all cases of a farm accident being reported, a follow-up health and safety inspection will take place.
“If we find that a blatant breach of regulations has taken place, we will send files to the public prosecution service. But we also have a strong advisory role to play within the farming sector.
“In cases where files are sent to the prosecution service, it’s arguably already too late: an accident or incident has already happened. Our absolute priority is that of preventing accidents from taking place in the first instance.”
Kidd continued: “The vast majority of accidents can be avoided. Our ultimate aim is to bring the number of deaths and serious accidents across all sectors of industry down to zero.”
Last year saw eight people killed on local farms. Those most at risk of being involved in a farm-related accident are older people and young children.
According to Kidd, HSENI is working closely with the UFU, CAFRE, DAERA and the Farm Safety Partnership in order to get the strongest possible advisory message out to farmers of all ages. He further commented:
“Our staff regularly visit primary schools in rural areas. During the last academic year, they made direct contact with 10,770 pupils.
“In addition, our recent ‘Avoid Harm On the Farm’ poster competition attracted 3,882 entries, again from rural primary schools across Northern Ireland.
“HSENI also produces 40,000 calendars each year, which are distributed through the schools.”
Kidd is also very conscious of the need for HSENI to make contact with teenagers and young adults.
“Here the challenge is one of young people thinking they are pretty much invincible. No weight is too heavy to lift and there is no hazard that cannot be avoided on the back of a quick reflex reaction. But as we all know, this is not the case. HSENI has a very close working relationship with the YFCU and CAFRE. This is allowing inspectors to make contact with students and other groups of young people.
“Naturally, we want to build on this for the future.”
According to Kidd, mental health problems are a key component in predisposing farmers to risk from accident.
He commented:“Given this backdrop, HSENI is working closely with organisations like Rural Support. The aim of this work is to encourage farmers coming under pressure to seek the appropriate help.
“At Balmoral Show this year, Rural Support launched its new booklet entitled ‘Coping with the Pressures of Farming’.
“Its purpose is to provide the farming community with help and assistance in relation to their health, well-being and the everyday pressures of running a farm. HSENI was heavily involved in the development of this project.”
Kidd concluded: “The work which HSENI undertakes in tandem with other stakeholder groups, such as the UFU and the Farm Safety Partnership, is making a real difference when it comes to reducing the number of fatal and serious farm accidents that occur in Northern Ireland.
“Our campaigns, such as Farm Safety Week, focus on the delivery of one simple message. We are asking farmers to think ‘SAFE’ before they undertake any work-related activity.”