Speaking at the National Conference on Farm Safety and Health in Kilkenny, Martin O’Halloran said the place of children on farms, particularly around machinery, must be debated.
Four of the 20 people who died on Irish farms this year are aged under 17.
Speaking to the media later, he said the HSA recognises that farms are family homes, but that children were particularly vulnerable.
“We certainly as an authority feel that there’s very little scope for having children near working machinery unless there is total supervision,” he said. “That means they have to be firmly grasped by the hand.
“We fully recognise that it is a home. We recognise that it is an exciting place for children, but they are particularly vulnerable and they can be injured or damaged in the blink of an eyelid.”
The HSA’s chief inspector, Pat Griffin, said there was a need to re-evaluate the age at which young people can drive tractors, currently 14, and the age at which children can be carried on tractors, currently set at seven in the HSA’s farm safety code of practice.
A stronger approach is needed, he said, to protect farmers and their families.
However, the IFA’s Eddie Downey and the ICMSA’s John Comer questioned the need for zero tolerance.
Mr Downey said farms were intergenerational, and the family unit on farms could not be destroyed. There is a place for children working on the farm with their parents and being educated as they grow up, he said, but added that farming parents may have to look at how they manage that.
He said children do not belong where heavy machinery is working with unfamiliar drivers and contractors.
Brian Rohan, founder of Embrace, the support group for families bereaved following farm accidents, said unless children were brought up on the farm from a young age, they wouldn’t get a love for farming.
“You hear people saying the farm is no place for children, but I think it’s a wonderful place to bring children up, provided they’re looked after 100% of the time they’re out there,” said Mr Rohan.
He said he drove a tractor from the age of 10, but only under strict supervision and he was taught to be safe.
Embrace is working on a number of initiatives to promote farm safety among children, because, he said, they will create change and teach their parents, while it is more difficult to change the behaviour of people who have been farming for decades.