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Combating risk in agriculture

Industry figures that show the agriculture industry is the worst sector for health and safety in the UK make it crucial that farmers implement steps to reduce workplace accidents.

Statistics revealed recently by work and pensions minister Lord Freud show that over a 16-year period – between 1994 and 2010 – nearly 750 people died in farmland accidents.

Shockingly, members of the public accounted for 98 of these fatalities.

Lord Freud, who revealed the figures in a written parliamentary answer to Labour peer Lord Kennedy, said that despite declining employment in agriculture and significant structural and technological changes in the sector, its health and safety performance "has been and continues to be poor".

Indeed – provisional figures for the 2010-2011 year, released last week by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), show little improvement has been made.

Between April 2010 and March 2011, 34 workers were killed, a slight decrease on the previous year, when 39 died. Nevertheless, the number of workers killed in agriculture each year remain, in the words of the HSE's board member for agriculture Sandy Blair, "stubbornly consistent".

"This slight decrease is obviously welcome and should give some encouragement to the industry to keep seeking improvement: a step in the right direction but one that will only continue to save lives if the effort is maintained," Mr Blair said.

There are things being done to help farmers reduce risk. The National Farmers Union (NFU), for example, recently launched the Farm Safety Charter, in a bid to cut the alarming number of fatalities attributed to the industry. Some 16 agricultural organisations have already signed up to it.

Aviva is calling for the industry to focus on the risk of working at height as part of its Simply Safety campaign.

Given falls from height are the joint second highest cause of fatal injuries to agricultural workers, accounting for 16 per cent of all fatalities over the past ten years, it is imperative farmers focus their resources on this area.

There are regular cases of farms being prosecuted over injuries and fatalities resulting in falls from height. In March this year, for example, a farm business was fined £4,000 plus ordered to pay £2,114 in costs after an employee suffered a broken pelvis, four broken ribs and a broken shoulder blade as a result of a roof fall.

In another case, a farm was fined was fined £8,000 and ordered to pay £5,000 in costs after a worker broke his collarbone after falling around 12 feet through a roof he was fixing.

Falls from height cause pain and distress, but they also cost employers time and money. The NFU estimates that accidents and injuries cost about £343 million every year.

So what can farmers do to reduce risk?

"Working at any height carries a risk and employers should undertake a full assessment before work starts to avoid putting employees in unnecessary danger," said Phil Grace, liability risk manager at Aviva.

Work on roofs, vehicles and with bales all carry with them the potential for falls. By implementing risk assessments and health and safety strategies for these key areas, farmers will be working to reduce the risk.

For roof work, ensure workers have been given sufficient training and never walk on purlins or stand on fragile cement roofs. Checking the weather forecast before starting work on projects is also a good idea – high winds have been known to cause accidents.

Given the range of different vehicles employed in the agriculture industry, falls as a result of climbing down from vehicles should be focussed on. Never jump from a vehicle – ensure workers use steps, and make sure access to high parts of vehicles are in good working order.

Bale work also carries significant risk. In February this year, for instance, a farmer was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £5,076 in costs after a worker was killed while helping out on his farm. The man was moving wrapped round silage bales from a stack when three fell, fatally crushing him underneath.

Make sure plans are in place for loading bales on to trailers, use end racks or hay ladders and make sure loads are built to bind themselves.

Make sure loads are well-secured and that no one rides on top of them.

Mr Grace said: "Jobs should be completed from ground level wherever possible and, if work must be carried out at height, it is essential that workers are properly trained, competent to do the job and appropriately supervised at all times.

"Planning is key and a few simple steps can significantly reduce the risk of an accident."

Our Simply Safety factsheet is free to downloard and gives ten top tops for working at height in agriculture.ADNFCR-2134-ID-800612785-ADNFCR