The number of farm inspections has almost halved in four years, while just over half of all farms inspected last year received written advice on improvements and more than 100 prohibition notices were issued.
The fall comes despite farms being the most dangerous places to work, with the highest fatality rate.
The figures compiled by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) show 1,781 farm inspections were carried out last year, marking another drop in the number of inspections as the HSA seeks to use other methods to bolster farm safety levels.
As recently as 2015 there were 3,056 inspections by the HSA. Some 17 people died in farm accidents last year. The overwhelming majority of those who died were over the age of 65.
In 2017, 24 farmers died in work-related accidents, with 14 aged 65 or older. Up to 53% of fatalities last year were associated with farm vehicles and machinery, while 29% arose due to incidents with livestock.
Last year, written advice was given by a HSA inspector to a farmer 907 times, while 126 improvement notices were issued.
The strongest sanction available to a HSA inspector short of seeking a criminal prosecution is a prohibition notice, of which 105 were issued last year.
Pat Griffin, senior inspector with the HSA, said of the notices issued to farmers: “The vast majority of them refer to improvements required to tractors and machinery, particularly absence of or incomplete PTO guards, condition of machinery with much less being issued on completing the safety statement or code of practice risk assessment document and improving issues around the yard.”
Mr Griffin said that while inspections had continued there had been a move towards other methods of spreading the farm safety message, including through knowledge-transfer groups. He said the likelihood of a farm being inspected was much less than a construction site being inspected, based on the sheer quantity of farming units.
He also said prosecutions were unlikely in a farming context as often the fatality was within the family and the DPP was unlikely to direct that a case be brought.
“Our experience is that farmers are very, very compliant people,” he said. “The problem is they are waiting for our inspectors to give them the list of things to do. They are not pro-active. That is the problem.”
Mr Griffin said trying to regulate a sector such as agriculture “through fear” was not going to work and that the focus had been on regulating via knowledge and expertise, with greater levels of engagement from other stakeholders such as the IFA in recent years.