Crushed by bales of hay, trampled by a bull or run over by a reversing tractor – these are just a handful of the gruesome causes of death in farming, the most peril-fraught sector in the economy.
The latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) work-related fatalities figures released on Wednesday (July 1) show that agricultural work is becoming even more dangerous.
The provisional figures indicate that 33 workers in the agricultural sector sustained fatal injuries over the past year, up from 27 in the year previous – an increase of 22 per cent.
The rate of fatalities in the sector also remains the highest out of any sector – out of every 100,000 farm workers, nine lost their lives while on the job last year. This is nearly eight times higher than the fatality rate in the notoriously dangerous construction sector, which is less than two per 100,000.
And these figures are only the tip of the iceberg, underneath which may lie thousands of unreported injuries.
The HSE itself has said that of the most serious level of injuries in agriculture which should be reported by law, only 16 per cent are actually reported. The Executive estimates that there could be more than 10,000 unreported injuries in the industry each year.
A recent survey of farm workers from Farmers Guardian reveals why exactly, the sector may be so hazardous. An astonishing 77 per cent of workers surveyed said they knew someone who had suffered a serious work-related injury – many reported deaths and lost limbs. More than 60 per cent said they themselves had had an on-farm accident.
A large majority in the survey said they would like to be offered more health and safety training, with many saying that pressures from bosses or colleagues to get the job done makes it difficult to seek such training.
Respondents also pointed to the solitary nature of agricultural work as a major reason that the job can be so dangerous. Nearly 90 per cent said they carried they’re mobile phones with them at all times, but only 43 per cent said they had service on all parts of the farm.
But the most cited reason among farm workers for the sector’s health and safety record being so poor was on-the-job time pressures.
Unite national officer for agriculture Julia Long condemned the sector’s worsening health and safety record.
“The industry is not doing enough to support and protect the workers and our membership,” she said.
“The industry has to be concerned that deaths have increased – the official figures from the HSE are a massive underestimation of reality. The TUC have previously highlighted that HSE figures represent only one per cent of the total number of fatalities.”
“We know from speaking to our members that the agricultural sector has a long way to go to become a safe environment in which to work,” Long added. “No one should have to risk their lives to provide for themselves and their families.”
Health and safety under the coalition
As agricultural work becomes increasingly risky, the need for a strong Health and Safety Executive becomes all the more important.
But under the previous coalition government, the HSE has suffered massive cutbacks, significantly constraining the Executive’s ability to report on health and safety violations.
A TUC report from last year found that since 2010, the government cut HSE funding by an astonishing 40 per cent, amounting to an £80m-£85m slash every year.
More than just the austerity-driven funding cuts, the report noted that the government’s ideological lurch towards deregulation was another driving factor paralysing the HSE’s ability to do its job.
“The coalition government’s policies on health and safety are based on a pro-business, anti-regulation ideology,” the report noted. “Although the funding cuts have hit the HSE and local authorities hard, most of the changes the government has forced through in terms of reduced inspections and removing protection have had nothing to do with the cuts.”
“This government sees regulations on health and safety as a ‘burden’. This is despite strong evidence that those organisations with a strong health and safety culture perform better generally.”
Indeed, the number of ‘proactive’ inspections, as part of the government’s health and safety reform programme, has plummeted by a third, from 33,000 in 2010 to just 22,000 planned inspections in 2014/15.
Unite national health and safety adviser Susan Murray noted that the agricultural sector will only become a safer environment in which to work if both industry and the government do their part.
“It is of very great concern that the death toll has risen in what is a very dangerous industry,” she said.
“It must be made absolutely clear that the industry falls short in health and safety compliance at their peril.
“The government must restore adequate funding to the HSE to enable them to conduct robust enforcement activity in the agriculture sector and employers must comply with their health and safety duties to protect their employees from injury and ill-health.”