Agricultural and rural environments present significant health and safety risks that must be carefully managed and mitigated by employers and landowners operating in the sector. The health and safety (HSE) manager annual report on fatal accidents at work (published 6 July 2022) revealed that, of the 123 workers killed in work-related accidents in the UK in 2021/22, 22 deaths occurred in the agricultural sector. Just last month, a teenage farmer was killed in an accident involving a bale wrapper.
Health and safety lapses are best exemplified by several lawsuits since the start of the year:
- In February, a farmer was for follow-up after a fatal incident on farmland in Leeds. An 83-year-old man was trampled and killed by cattle as he followed a public right of way through a farm with his wife, who was also seriously injured. The cattle were with their calves, greatly increasing the risk to any member of the public accessing the field. The farmland owner pleaded guilty to breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1974 for failing to implement measures to mitigate the risks caused by his livestock. He received a suspended 12-week prison sentence and had to pay a fine of £878, plus £7,820.30 in costs.
- In March, a farmer was for follow-up after her four-year-old nephew was crushed after falling from a farm vehicle. Children under the age of 13 are prohibited from riding or driving vehicles used on farms. The farmer pleaded guilty to breaching the 1974 Act. He was sentenced to 26 weeks in prison (suspended for 18 months), community order (which included 250 hours of unpaid work) and ordered to pay costs of more than £5,000.
- In March, a farmer was for follow-up following a worker suffering multiple injuries after getting caught in a potato harvester. The HSE investigation found the farmer failed to implement a safety shutdown procedure, which would have prevented the accident from happening. The farmer was fined around £5,000 and costs just under £6,000.
- A livestock auction market was also for follow-up and fined after an employee was fatally injured by a dairy bull he was helping load onto a truck. During the ensuing investigation, it was identified that there were insufficient barriers for those handling the livestock to take shelter behind if the animals were destabilized. The company was fined £18,000.
Given the number of fatal and non-fatal injuries to employees in the agriculture, fishing and forestry sectors, it is essential that those operating in this sector are aware of the risks involved and do everything possible their power to avoid finding themselves in breach of health and safety rules designed to protect their employees and the public.
What are my obligations as a landowner or employer?
The Occupational Health and Safety Act 1974 etc. defines a number of obligations applicable to all employers, including those in the agricultural sector. Employers owe a duty of care to their employees and to “persons other than their employees”, ie the general public. Although the duties owed to employees are more specific, a general duty is owed to employers/property owners not to expose the general public to health and safety risks.
This general duty places a general requirement on farm owners to ensure that no part of their property poses a risk to the health and safety of the general public. A number of risks can arise from public access to agricultural land. Landowners should conduct a regular assessment of the risks to their land and any necessary mitigation measures that need to be taken to prevent the public from being harmed as a result of those risks.
What are the most frequent causes of accidents in the agricultural environment?
It appears from HSE statistics that the main causes of accidents in the agricultural sector can be categorized as follows:
- slips, trips and falls, especially from heights;
- livestock injuries;
- injuries caused by contact with agricultural machinery; and or
- being struck by an object, whether moving or stationary (including being struck by a moving vehicle).
What steps can landowners and employers take to manage the risks?
Agriculture and rural land management are complex working environments and, given the risks posed by large machinery, operational decision-making on farms should place much greater emphasis on health and safety. farmers and agricultural workers.
Land managers should not be lulled into a false sense of security or complacency, or adopt a “it won’t happen to me” mentality. Nor should the isolated or remote nature of the work mean that greater risks are accepted “just to get the job done”. There are relatively simple steps they can take to reduce the risk of injury:
- disconnect power to vehicles/machines before carrying out repairs;
- keep workers a safe distance from moving vehicles;
- ensure that workers are kept at a safe distance during loading/unloading operations;
- regular maintenance of agricultural structures and land; and
- use safe and appropriate equipment when working at height.
There are implications for insurance coverage when the risk has not been managed effectively.
Obviously, the focus should be on effective risk management. However, it would appear that lessons are not being learned in the agricultural sector in the same way as in others.