Farm safety needs to be top priority for year ahead

The statistics released last week by the Health and Safety Authority on industry fatalities in Ireland in 2014 made for disturbing reading, particularly for those in the farming community.

All involved in farming have a role to play in farm safety, starting with farmers. With farming intensifying, we have to take greater care in what we do.

In a year in which there were 55 fatal workplace accidents, up 17% on 2013, over 55% of these were from one sector alone: agriculture.

Go deeper and the figures are even more harrowing for the farming fraternity. An 87% increase in deaths on farms. Five of the 30 killed were children; 18 involved machinery/vehicles.

The statistics are stark but behind them, as we know only too well as an organisation, is a story of devastating heartbreak; of parents burying their children, of infant and older children being left without fathers, of wives left without husbands and vice versa. And that’s just the emotional loss.

The practical loss? In most cases, the main breadwinner in the family is gone. Young wives widowed, their security and certainty wiped out in an instant. In some cases, if the loved one dies intestate, widows are left unable to access funds which remain frozen until an expensive legal process is finalised.

Beyond that, there’s the big question of who farms when the farmer is killed in sudden circumstances. Thankfully, the generosity of spirit in rural Ireland remains boundless as neighbours, relations and friends take over. But, realistically, how long can this continue for as ultimately hard choices have to be made.

This year Embrace FARM, having been established as a bereavement support group for farm families affected by fatal accidents, also entered the domain of farm safety awareness due to the awful mounting death toll — the worst in over 20 years.

We did so by launching a campaign titled ‘What’s Left Behind’. The theme says it all because we have watched on in despair at what was left behind for the 30 families for whom 2014 turned out to be a living hell.

The campaign is also a simple one; short videos in which families affected by fatal farm accidents articulate their experience. People bravely laying bare their horrific grief to one and all so their tragic experiences might just encourage other farmers to take greater care. The videos are available on our Embrace FARM facebook account or on a range of online news platforms.

It was not our intention to enter this field — our primary focus was on developing an annual remembrance service, which takes place on June 28, as well as setting up bereavement support groups. But due to the unfolding and awful death toll and the enormous and generous encouragement of the ABP Food Group in funding the campaign, there was every reason to take this step.

Others have also stepped up to the plate, not least Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, who reacted mid-year to what was already then turning out to be an annus horribilis for fatal farm accidents by making over €12m available for grant aiding safety improvements on farms.

Furthermore, in response to our own request to help those, not least widows, deal with ‘what’s left behind’, he appointed a liaison officer in the Department of Agriculture to assist them in wading through the morass of complications they inherit.

Other mooted responses yet to materialise look set to take a more punitive approach. Penalties linking farm safety to payments have been suggested but the reaction from farming representative organisations has been dismissive.

As a farmer myself, and one who has suffered the loss of a much loved father as a result of a farming accident, I firmly believe more ‘carrot than stick’ is required. We would like to see a concerted, multi-agency and multi- faceted approach that involves a reasonable degree of regulation but greater degrees of education and awareness programmes, plus further rounds of grant aid for safety initiatives.

In whatever way it arrives, something must be done not least because worse may be to come. Farming is getting vastly more mechanised every year. And with more machinery comes more risk.

Unless safety improves, it may result in 50% more fatalities. After the year just gone, that’s a prospect far too grave to contemplate.

* Brian Rohan is founder of Embrace FARM


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