Danger on farms ‘normalised’ on many Irish farms

There is an “acceptance of the way things are”.
Danger on farms ‘normalised’ on many Irish farms

The “pain and suffering” a farmer may experience if they survive a work accident can be “severe and long-lasting and have a large effect on them as a person".

Danger has become “normalised” on farms in Ireland meaning that, for many, “accidents are to be expected, that they will happen”, according to a Teagasc senior research officer.

From hazardous working conditions to a “culture of risk-taking” and a poor understanding of safety culture determinants among key people, there are many challenges in relation to health, safety, and wellbeing, Teagasc’s David Meredith said.

There are around 140,000 farms in Ireland, predominantly self-employed. Taking families attached to those farms into consideration, it means there are around 400,000 persons “at risk” in agriculture in Ireland, Francis Bligh, Teagasc health and safety specialist said.

In the last 10 years, agriculture has had the highest rate of fatal injury of any major economic sector, and those working in the industry are seven times more likely to be killed at work, he added.

Speaking at a recent webinar, Mr Meredith explained that, for a long time, the sustainability of farming focused on “concerns around the environment, water quality, gaseous emissions and so on”.

“Then there’s that overarching concern with the economic viability of farming, so really the sustainability of food production,” he said.

“When sustainability of farms was talked about it was very much in the context of generation renewal; it was the idea that we have an older cohort of people and the need to bring in new generations of farmers.”

However, the newest Teagasc strategy has shifted away from that and begun to focus on the sustainability of the farmer — not just the farm.

“This is a really important departure because it brings the issue of the challenges around health and safety and wellbeing to the fore, in terms of how do we make farming an occupation that is attractive that people will want to come into and that it is not detrimental to their health, or their safety, or their wellbeing in the future,” Mr Meredith said.

He said that farmers are worried about their future, with significant demands placed on them from lots of different groups, including consumers, policymakers, and society.

From speaking with farmers and carrying out research he said that some of them are “reflecting a perspective that everyone wants so much from them”.

“And that type of comment comes from a background of people talking about in the past, people wanted food; that’s what policymakers wanted, that’s what society wanted, and now people want sustainable food; policymakers want high levels of animal welfare; so there [are] a lot more demands coming in on farmers in relation to how they go about their business.”

'Shrugging shoulders'

When discussing farm safety, he said he has seen a “lot of shrugging the shoulders” amongst farmers and saying “well sure isn’t farming dangerous”.

Mr Meredith said there is an “acceptance of the way things are”.

The high level of injury and death on farms, he said, is a result of the combination of “very hazardous working and labour conditions in some instances — like working alone for long periods of time in adverse weather conditions with large machinery or livestock”.

“There’s also poor understanding of safety culture determinants amongst key people and here I’m talking to policymakers and regulators, and there’s an absence of well-informed actions,” Mr Meredith added.

Francis Bligh told participants that from the farmer’s perspective, there needs to be a focus on how they farm, that they can farm sustainably hopefully into older age, and that they can retire in good health and in a good mental state.

The “pain and suffering” a farmer may experience if they survive a work accident can be “severe and long-lasting and have a large effect on them as a person”, Mr Bligh said.

He said that statistics from the HSA show that farm accidents are widespread across the country but largely focused in areas where stocking rates are higher or activities are more intensive.

The 19-64 age group is “hearing the message” around farm safety, he said, as there was a reduction in fatalities in this cohort over the last decade.

“The over 65 age group is where there is an increasing problem in relation to getting that message into the minds of those farmers and the wider community that they’re at high risk and they are losing their lives in increasing numbers on farms,” Mr Bligh said. 

"The age profile of farmers, especially in drystock and sheep sectors, is increasing and that is a problem from a policy perspective we need to keep focus."

Mr Bligh added that stress is also a “big issue”.

“Obviously, with increasing input prices and the issues with trying to source different types of inputs, it can be a challenging time – and it’s important to talk,” he said.

“[Stress] can arise for a lot of different reasons, and it’s important to take action when you do feel that you are under stress or pressure.”

Mr Bligh noted that the part-time farmer is “time-poor” and is “sometimes more likely to put safety equipment in place”.

“They know they have to do a lot of work at weekends or in the mornings or evenings,” he said.

“There is evidence that the part-time farmer will spend more money on trying to make their farm more efficient so that they can manage it in a way that means that they’re spending less time there.”

Teagasc senior research officer David Meredith added that data showed a trend of fatalities involving livestock incidents outside “conventional” working hours.

“It was particularly prevalent in the border, midlands and western region where there would be a lot of off-farm work and part-time farming, and it was particularly prevalent during the winter period,” he explained.

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