In an age when children’s lives are often dominated by smartphones, streaming TV and video games, there’s something doubtlessly alluring about the premise of the new hit show Our Yorkshire Farm, a docuseries on raising so-called ‘free-range’ kids.
The show tells the story of husband and wife Amanda and Clive Owen, hill shepherds in a remote farm in Yorkshire, and their nine children, aged 17 to 2, who work together to keep the farm ticking over.
This week’s most recent episode, aired on Tuesday (December 11), featured the family’s struggles over Britain’s hottest summer as they race to make the farm’s hay crop, while previous episodes look at the challenges of winter and spring.
It’s a heart-warming story to be sure, but beneath the glossy depiction of idyllic rural life are serious health and safety concerns Unite has raised.
Unite member and assistant farmer Matthew Belsey, who also serves on the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Agriculture Industry Advisory Committee, said he was disheartened by the blatant risks and potential violation of health and safety laws on display on the show.
Among these Matthew highlights are children driving quad bikes without helmets, with multiple passengers on bikes designed for one person, which is illegal. Children, including toddlers, are shown riding on trailers without guardrails and riding in tractors when it is illegal to have a child under the age of 13 ride in or operate farm machinery. The children have also been shown climbing and playing on hay bales, each of which can weigh half a tonne.
“It’s really disappointing as a union to be working so hard to raise awareness about health and safety in the most dangerous industry in the economy – and then to see such risks and violations popularised on a TV show,” Matthew told UNITElive.
Indeed, agriculture tops the list of workplace fatalities each and every year – the fatal injury rate in agriculture is 18 times higher than the five-year average for all industries combined. Last year alone, 33 people were killed in farm-related accidents, including two children, the youngest of whom was 4.
“It’s a national scandal that each and every year so many people living, working or visiting farms have fatal accidents,” Matthew said. “And each and every year there is typically at least one child death but often more.”
While many may think that children living on farms understand the risks, the HSE has pointed out that the majority of children who die in farm incidents are in fact family members.
Fatal incidents recorded by the HSE over the years, for example, includes one in which an 8-year-old girl was playing in a farm bale stack. When she tried to climb down she fell 3.5 meters into a hay tedder below and died from severe head injuries. In another incident, a 12-year-old boy who was driving a quad bike on a farm swerved to avoid a ditch, toppled over and drowned in the ditch.
The number of non-fatal injuries among children on farms is high too – and these injuries can be serious and life-changing, such as having legs or arms amputated.
“It’s difficult to get across exactly how dangerous a farm environment can be,” Matthew noted as he criticised some fans of the show who’ve taken to Twitter to glorify the apparent disregard for health and safety on the programme:
Brilliant programme and what a brilliant family. Waiting for the hse fanatics to get tweeting about the safety issues. #OurYorkshireFarm
— Shero (@Spreadman59) December 12, 2018
I love #ouryorkshirefarm – it’s a joyous childhood health and safety nightmare but all the more fabulous for it.
— Nicola Furbisher (@NicolaFurbisher) December 11, 2018
“It’s a very strange mind set to have,” he said of the tweets. “I assume that many who have commented on social media do not actually live or work on farms. I have children and young grandchildren and, as an experienced farmworker, I would never put them in risky situations like those shown on the programme.”
Unite has notified the HSE about its concerns.
Farm Safety Partnership
The union is leading the way on health and safety in agriculture in many ways — most recently through its role as a full member in the Farm Safety Partnership, an initiative which brings together a broad range of stakeholders in agriculture to increase awareness of safety on farms.
This year, the partnership has set a target to halve the number of farming fatalities by 2023.
“As a union, it is our duty to protect workers in agriculture,” Matthew said. “Being killed or seriously injured on farms doesn’t have to be a fact that we merely accept. We’ve committed to change so that the absolutely vital work farmworkers do is safe now and in the future, for both them and their families.”
Unite national officer for agriculture Sue Pollard hailed the work the union is taking on in raising awareness about health and safety.
“We at Unite are very proud of our strong record of promoting health and safety, especially in agriculture where the fatality rate is astronomically higher than in any other sector,” she said.
“While Our Yorkshire Farm might make for entertaining television, it masks the reality of the dangers inherent in farming, and we believe it is irresponsible of the show’s producers to in effect glorify hazardous and potentially illegal practices. We will not shirk from our duty in helping to protect all those involved in our wonderful and proud tradition of British agriculture.”
Find out more about ensuring children’s safety on farms by reading HSE’s guidance here.