Ploughing forward with safety 08 May 2019

Industry bodies are pushing ‘best practice’ to improve health and safety on farms. So, what are the issues for off-road agricultural vehicles and machinery and what safety checks should operators carry out?

Farming is the UK’s most dangerous industry when it comes to sustaining injuries and fatalities. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show that 17,000 workers suffered from injuries in agriculture, forestry and fishing in 2017/18, with 52% being related to muscle and/or skeletal damage. During that same period, there were 29 fatal injuries, which equates to 8.44 per 100,000 workers. It is higher than any other industry sector, and around five times more than construction. Nearly half the workers killed were over 65; another quarter were 60-65. Thirteen of those deaths involved moving vehicles, machinery and equipment.

Rick Brunt has just been appointed HSE’s head of operational strategy, after more than five years as the head of vulnerable workers, agriculture, waste and recycling. He oversaw an initiative that warned farmers that they must pay closer attention to how they manage workplace risk or face serious penalties at the start of 2019.

“We are seeing signs of a change in attitude across the farming industry and, while this is encouraging, these inspections act as a reminder to farmers of the importance of managing risks so that everyone can go home from their work healthy,” he explains. “Everyone involved in farming has a role to play. Those working in the industry need to understand the risks they face and the simple ways they can be managed. Farmers, managers and workers are reminded that death, injuries and cases of ill health are not an inevitable part of farming.”

Already this year, a farming partnership in Devon pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 after a nine-year-old boy suffered a serious leg injury while travelling as a passenger on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on farmland driven by a 13-year-old. The ATV rolled over, trapping his leg between the ground and the roll-over protection bars. An HSE investigation found the most likely cause of the overturn was the inexperience and age of the driver, who had received no formal training. The manufacturer’s instructions and signage on the machine made it absolutely clear it was not suitable for use by under 16’s and that children should not be carried as passengers, but this was ignored, says HSE inspector Emma O’Hara.


Andy Newbold is a former president of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers. He says those that are killed in farming “predominately fall into two groups: the very young, who are inexperienced; and the very old whose reactions have slowed, and they are not as strong as before”.

Between those two groups is a historic culture where people ‘practice at having accidents’ because they get away with using unsafe equipment, machinery and vehicles daily, without incident, and that becomes the norm, he suggests. “There is an increasing professionalism in agriculture, but a farmer might only use a piece of machinery to cut 20 hectares of grass three times a year, whereas a contractor might do 50 hectares in a day, so there is also that depth of knowledge with machinery and safety,” he says. Newbold adds that he believes on a personal level, that an annual MOT for anything that uses the public highway should be mandatory.

The Farm Safety Partnership (FSP) is working to reduce farm workplace fatal accidents by half by 2023. Throughout 2019, it will focus on four of the top causes of farm workplace fatality and injury: transport, livestock, children and falls from height.

Transport has been the focus in the first three months of the year. Tom Price, the NFUs (National Farmers Union) chief farm safety adviser, says: “Health and safety are a big issue because agriculture is not the biggest employer, but the injury rate compared to the number of people employed is the poorest,” he says.

The reasons for fatal injury have not really changed over the years, he argues. “In general terms, the reasons why people are killed and the ways to avoid that are well known. What it comes down to is how do we change the culture and behaviour.

“We can see that is beginning to happen; there is more awareness of risks and things that can be done to manage the risks. The biggest category though is transport, and the biggest cause is being run over by their own vehicle. That can be stopped by securing the vehicle when you get out; one key element is making sure the handbrake does the job it’s meant to do when you get out. What we recommend is that the brakes are annually tested. In terms of maintenance, people tend to look after tractors and larger vehicles because there is a big capital investment.

“The real issue, in terms of road maintenance, is trailers: often a trailer will be parked up for long periods. Suddenly it is needed and people will use it without doing the basic checks, like making sure the tyres, brakes and lights work.”


It is vital that agricultural workers set up safe systems of work, and that people get into the ‘habit of checking the vehicles, and over a period of time doing a more detailed inspection’. If they do their own maintenance, they must have the experience and skillset to do it with proper equipment and resources, and not misuse equipment, for example using a forklift as a temporary lifting platform.

“We want people to look at their equipment, do a walk-around at the start and end of the day and, if they find a problem, act on it in a timely way. If you have finished with a trailer after harvest, put it away knowing it is operational so when you need it next it’s ready to work.”

Will Dickinson operates a farm in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, and fronts the FSP Drive Safety Forward campaign. He says farmers want to stay safe, but it shouldn’t be made difficult to do so. “Safety is all about managing risk by removing it or controlling it. It used to be that when we were tipping grain in the shed, an employee would manually open the back. This operation was risky, so we got rid of that by getting hydraulic tailgates that removed the need for a manual operation. The easiest way to make yourself safe is to take away the risk. The newest generations of tractors have a park facility, and many of them have a safe stop mode built into this. Securing your tractor before leaving the cab is one easy way to stop being run over.”

He acknowledges that there is an onus on farmers to stay safe around transport, and he conducts checks on his vehicle every morning to see if anything obvious needs fixing. He concludes: “A vehicle risk assessment might take a little time, but it usually pays off.”

Kevin Swallow

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