Stephen Cadogan: Winning hearts and minds in war against farm fatalities

With so many lives at risk, it is right and fitting that Minister Simon Coveney has made farm safety “probably the highest priority this year in terms of policy change”.
Stephen Cadogan: Winning hearts and minds in war against farm fatalities

He says he may have to make some unpopular decisions — never easy for a politician — in order to change farmer attitudes to safety.

The unpopular decisions may be in the area of youngsters helping on farms, driving tractors.

The Minister has revealed he was once himself one of the 15-year-olds driving tractors drawing 30 tonnes of grain.

He has questioned the appropriateness of untrained tractor drivers as young as 12 — and may take action on it, as part of his drive to change safety thinking in farm family members, young and old.

He says attitudes are changing among a new generation towards issues their parents would never have thought about — such as recycling, emissions, and climate change.

There have been similar changes in attitudes towards seatbelts and drink driving, and the Minister is aiming now to change minds on farm safety, including getting young people to target their parents and tell what risks are acceptable or are not acceptable on the farm.

He wants all farm family members to challenge each other on attitudes to safety. He will get the ball rolling by introducing a mandatory farm safety course in the discussion groups for 27,000 farmers across the dairy, beef, equine, sheep, tillage and poultry sectors, for which he has allocated knowledge transfer funding of €100m.

He says the most effective way, in his experience, to change how farmers approach things is helping them to learn from other farmers. Hence the mandatory farm safety course in discussion groups, to get farmers to talk to each other, as well as to experts on farm safety, to discuss how, in a practical sense, they can reduce the risk to themselves and to their families.

The Minister has also ensured that expanding farmers become more safety conscious. In the €395m TAMS grant aid scheme, before anybody gets the 40% to 60% grant money, they must have completed at least a half day’s farm safety course.

The only exception may be the direct injection slurry system; but anyone getting money for new buildings and extensions, or farmyard changes, must have done the half-day farm safety course.

Also, guidelines on building specifications for the construction of agricultural buildings and structures will include mandatory health and safety measures.

Meanwhile, €12.5 million will go out in the TAMS farm safety scheme, in which 6,299 farmers have applied for safety equipment grant aid. But only self-discipline and a change of attitude to farm safety will ultimately be effective, believes the Minister.

He says that requires challenging people, including family, neighbours and fellow members of farming organisations, and working with the Department, the Health and Safety Authority and all stakeholders who are trying to change attitudes, and with campaigns such as the FBD Champions for Change, to challenge people to think differently about farm safety.

It is important to remember that farms are both work places and family homes, and that the whole family is alert to the risks that exist on farms, said Mr Coveney this week, adding his support to the IFA National Farm Safety Awareness Day.

He said such initiatives, including the Embrace Farm ecumenical service in Abbeyleix, increase continual awareness of farm safety. He called on all farming organisations encourage farmers to change their behaviours in relation to farm safety, and called on farmers not to put off farm safety work.

On National Farm Safety Awareness Day, last Tuesday, IFA Presdient Eddie Downey urged farmers to complete the Farm Safety Risk Assessment planner (produced with the support of FBD), and use the opportunity to make young people aware of risks.

There is no time to lose, with eight fatalities already on Irish farms by the time Minister Coveney was addressing Seanad Eireann last week on its Public Consultation Committee Report on Farm Safety.

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