Farmed & dangerous

25th January 2018

When considering dangerous jobs, things like fire-fighting and police work spring to mind. But, according to data released last year by the Health and Safety Executive, those didn’t make the top of the list of the UK’s most dangerous professions ranked by fatalities. Farming almost claims the most lives, second only to construction and building work.

The government’s Farm Health and Safety Guide lays out measures to avoid accidents and deaths on the farm. Its introduction states: “Farming is a hazardous occupation.

“The industry represents approximately 1.8% of the workforce in Great Britain but accounts for about 19% of the reported fatal injuries each year.

“The four most common types of accident on farms involve vehicles and machinery, falls from heights, lifting and handling and hazardous substances.”

Cutting corners

In the last year alone, 27 farmers died while on the job. These accidental deaths are each a catastrophe, but why do more people die working in agriculture every year than nearly any other field?

“Most people that work in farming know someone that has been injured while on the job,” says Connor Tindall-Read, a 21-year-old tractor driver working in Norfolk.

sheep
Farming can be incredibly isolating

“I worked on a farm in my college days where the farmer was tightening a bold on a cultivator and fell back and tripped over a part of the machine injuring his wrist.

“The job itself didn’t really have any aspect of danger to it but nonetheless he still had to have a visit to the hospital,” he said.

Tindall-Read believes that, a bit like construction, farming safety standards are beginning to increase now people understand how dangerous the work can be.

On the farm where I work we have regular breaks and if you feel like fatigue is making the job dangerous, there is no pressure to carry on.

But while this is possible for larger companies, smaller farms are not always able to put expensive safety measures into place. Tindall-Read says: “I now work for a large estate where safety is one of our top priorities.

“While we keep up to date with safety courses and first aid training, a lot of smaller farms don’t and these are the farms that are probably at the most risk of accidents,” he adds.

There are many reasons why this may be, but the young farmer believes problems that arise are not through the inherent risk of the job, but through simple negligence. He believes his job is safe because he and those he works with take the necessary precautions to ensure they do not put themselves in harm’s way, at all times.

tractor
Complacency around machinery is how many farm accidents happen

He says: “On the farm where I work we have regular breaks and if you feel like fatigue is making the job dangerous, there is no pressure to carry on.

“The job itself is as dangerous as you make it: while with cattle you are working with live animals and there is a certain unpredictability with livestock, tractors and machinery can be made safe fairly easily by simply turning the machine off.

“Cutting simple corners like this is probably the root cause of most accidents and I think it is more down to complacency rather than time-saving.”

No job is worth any risk to someone’s life

Tindall-Read recognises a bigger issue at play- that some workers are too willing to do things the quick and easy way, even if it means putting themselves at risk. He says: “Trying to get the idea into the farming community that no job is worth any risk to someone’s life has probably been the biggest challenge.

“In short, I don’t feel like farming is a dangerous job but it can very easily be made dangerous.

“It’s a matter of taking the time to make sure everything is as safe as it could be before doing a job and remembering that no job is worth risking your life for.” 

Mistakes

Farmer Phil Garnham holds a similar view, saying that mistakes are only made through one-off accidents, rather than carelessness or factors like extreme exhaustion. He said: “Potentially, these jobs can be quite dangerous, but I think everybody tries to take as much precaution as they can to stop themselves getting hurt.

“I think it just comes out of that one time you might do something a bit differently- you might not shut the gate properly, or fully put the handbrake down on a tractor, or don’t turn it off.”

Tragically sometimes what happens is a lack of concentration, and suddenly something happens, and that can be the one time that will change your life

He describes how farming can be very repetitive, which is often when mistakes are made: “If it’s a job that I’ve done a thousand and one times, I don’t really think about it and go into autopilot, and tragically sometimes what happens is a lack of concentration, and suddenly something happens, and that can be the one time that will change your life,” he said.  

However, Garnham agrees that awareness for these issues of safety in agriculture have come a long way in the past few years. He says: “The last year or so there has been a concerted effort from the likes of the National Farmers Union (NFU) and certain farming bodies to create more awareness about farm safety.”

Suicide

Garnham discusses how charities committed to tackling mental health and depression in agriculture workers have also been working hard recently, as while it has one of the highest mortality rates of any UK profession, it also has one of the highest suicide rates among its workers.

“The last year or so there has been a concerted effort from the likes of the NFU and certain farming bodies to create more awareness about farm safety,” Garnham says.

cows
Livestock, such as cattle, can pose a huge danger to farmers because of their unpredictability

The nature of agricultural work often means you are working alone for long hours all day, which can lead to high depression rates in farmers. He says: “You might leave home until six o’clock in the morning, and might not see anyone again until six o’clock at night.

“Farms are under tremendous financial strain all of the time, if you get one thing wrong it can be the real noose round your neck.”

Worry

On the other side of things, Rachel Williams is a mum of two, who tries not to worry about her husband Barry Williams out on the farm every day. Williams says that when they first got together she didn’t know it was such a dangerous job, but the more she learned about his family, the more she discovered.

“I’m not from a farming background, so when we first got together I didn’t really appreciate how dangerous it could be.

“As we got to know each other more I realised that he had a cousin who’d died on a farm, his great uncle had lost a leg in a combine, and about four years ago his Dad fell off a trailer in the yard because his boots were mucky, and he shattered his whole pelvis.

“You’re not necessarily doing something unsafe for accidents to happen — he was doing that job exactly as it should be done — but sometimes things happen,” says Williams.

The little things don’t even register [as] dangerous, and that’s when the accidents happen

As touched on by Garnham and Tindall-Read, it is not uncommon to know so many people in agriculture who have been involved in accidents.

She says: “You forget about the little things — you know when you’re handling cattle that kind of thing is obviously dangerous, so you know to be careful.

“But the little things don’t even register [as] dangerous, and that’s when the accidents happen.”

However, Williams has the comfort of knowing that where her husband works takes particular care to ensure its workers don’t spend lengthy periods of time in solitude, to combat the rise in suicide risk and depression among agriculture workers, but also the risk of dangerous accidents happening while somebody is working alone, and is therefore unable to get help. She says: “On the farm he works on now, when they do dangerous things everyone will be there, lots of people will be present.

“They try to come together, even in harvest, they’ll all take their breaks together so they can all get out of their cabs, stretch their legs and have a chat.

“I do think it is a positive thing, and because it’s a smaller farm, and has always been run by the same family, they treat everyone like family.

“They bring out tea and cake for everyone, it can be quite twee but I think it’s really important.”

Overall, Williams can rest a little easier knowing the farm has these measures, and by putting enough trust in her husband to know that he is safe.

She says: “Obviously I always worry, but you always have to trust that they know what they’re doing, they’re not deliberately going out there to hurt themselves, that’s not why they do it.”

25th January 2018