The nature of the agricultural industry means there will always be a safety risk. Yet those risks can be minimised the fact that this is not happening means that far too many workers die every year in agriculture. Most deaths barely get a mention in the media as though it is an occupational risk.
Around 340,000 people work in agriculture — just one per cent of the UK workforce — yet deaths in the sector account for 20 per cent of the entire number of workplace fatalities in the UK.
The most recent figures (2016/17) reveal that there were 27 deaths in agriculture, forestry and fishing.
Each and every one of these deaths was a terrible tragedy where someone’s loved one — a father, son or brother — went to work and didn’t come home again.
Road traffic accidents
But these figures don’t paint a full picture. In the UK, road traffic accidents are not counted as workplace deaths. This is particularly important in agriculture, where vehicles are frequently driven on the roads. A freedom of information request to the Department of Transport has revealed that between 2012-2016 there were 122 road traffic deaths (an average of 24 a year) involving agricultural vehicles. Of these deaths 16 were the driver or passenger of an agricultural vehicle.
Given these factors, it is somewhat alarming to realise that the rules of driving a tractor are so lax. A 13 year old is legally allowed to drive a tractor on private land. You can take a driving test for a tractor at just 16, at which point you can legally drive on the roads with a trailer attached.
To add further concern, unlike the standard driving test, the tractor test has not been substantially changed for over 40 years.
Given the high number of fatal road traffic accidents involving agricultural vehicles it is further worrying to discover that there is no requirement for tractors to have a MoT. Quite clearly rather than obsessing about cutting so called ‘red tape’ the government should be ensuring that agricultural vehicles are roadworthy and drivers are competent.
On top of the fatalities is the industry’s very high injury rate, four per cent of the workforce (13,000) suffers a recorded workplace injury every year. This figure is probably in reality far higher, due to underreporting. A similar number (15,000) also record that they suffered a work related illness.
Unite activist John Burbidge, said, “DEFRA should undertake a thorough review of agriculture’s safety record, looking at how other industries significantly reduced injuries and deaths.
“An industry that’s in more or less permanent economic crisis looks to cut corners in maintaining equipment, training and, planning.”
Given the high level of fatalities, illness and accidents suffered by agricultural workers it is important to look at what is being done to improve safety. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is the organisation with responsibility.
Health and safety inspections
But a further freedom of information request by Unite revealed that proactive inspections of agricultural premises by the HSE are rare. In 2016/17 there were just 403 such inspections in the UK (that figure actually increased in recent years).
As there are estimated to be 218,000 agricultural holdings in the UK it means that just 0.2 per cent are inspected each year. An agricultural worker is unlikely ever to see an HSE inspector unless a serious incident has occurred.
Following these inspections there were 56 enforcement notices and 72 notices of contravention showing, a very high number of establishments failing to record a clean bill of health.
However in the last five years following an unannounced inspection there has been just one prosecution for breaking safety laws.
Unlike other high risk sectors such as construction, agriculture does not have dedicated inspectors, with those undertaking agricultural inspections required to work across many sectors. In the winter months there must be a temptation to inspect a warm factory rather than a difficult to access farm.
A major factor is that the HSE is being starved of funding by the end of this decade the organisation will have 46 per cent less funding then it received in 2010 when the Conservative’s came to power.
In response the HSE has developed a wide ranging intervention strategy to try to tackle safety in the sector. As well as inspections the strategy seeks to “improve knowledge, change behaviours and bring about lasting change.
A major aspect of this is the HSE’s safety and health awareness days (SHADs), which are used to raise awareness. There is also guidance being created to demonstrate what a “good farm looks like in terms of compliance.”
Accept responsibility call
Another key component is in encouraging the industry to accept responsibility for the poor health and safety record.
Speaking about the HSE’s strategy, Rick Brunt, HSE’s head of agriculture said,” The causes of death, ill health and injury in agriculture have not changed in decades and the means to prevent these are well known and straightforward.
“HSE’s intervention strategy for agriculture underlines the importance of the farming industry taking ownership of the problems and working together to improve this poor record.”
A crucial factor in improving safety is when workers are aware of potential problems and are able to challenge dangerous working practices. This is a why unionised workplaces and especially those which have independent union safety reps have far lower accident rates.
While Unite actively campaigns for effective enforcement and stricter safety laws, it is also essential that we recruit and organise in the workplace. It is by taking safety into their own hands that workers can best protect themselves and deaths and injuries are reduced.