Safety campaigners struggle to convince farmers who ‘think they are invincible’
PUBLISHED: 11:11 25 July 2020
Farm Safety Foundation
There’s a strong link between mental health and accidents on farms, a farmers’ leader believes.
Ed Ford, aged 30, also believes that age can be an obstacle to changing behaviours in order to improve the farming industry’s woeful record for deaths and serious injuries.
Latest figures show that farming has the poorest safety record of any occupation in the UK and Ireland. Of people killed within farming over the last year, 20 were agricultural workers and one was a member of the public – a four-year-old child, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures reveal.
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Workers over the age of 55 were disproportionately at risk of death following an incident. The five-year fatal injury rate is nearly six times higher for over 65s compared to the 16-24 age group.
And even with a lower death rate last year, agriculture still has the highest rate of fatal injury of all the main industry sectors – a shocking 18 times higher than the all-industry rate, accounting for around 20% of worker fatalities.
In the East of England, there was one death – down from two the previous year – when a 37-year-old self-employed farmer was trampled to death by his bull. He was attempting to direct the bull into a pen and died of serious head injuries.
Ed worked to create the Farm Safe training initiative for Young Farmers while he was chair of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC) in 2017/18. He is the youngest member of the Farm Safety Foundation (FSF) board of trustees, and believes that younger farmers have been far more receptive to the health and safety message.
During Farm Safety Week, which ran from July 20 to July 24, he and his colleagues at FSF have been highlighting the ingrained behaviour and challenges that farming faces.
Compared to 2018, there was a 37.5% decrease in fatal farm accidents in 2019, with numbers falling from 32 to 21.
Although farmers are making progress, there is still a long way to go, Ed believes.
Ed is involved in an all arable 600ha family operation – Childerditch Farms in Roxwell, near Chelmsford – working alongside his father.
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“I have been promoting farm safety for probably about eight years now, and definitely, definitely seen a shift in the mentality in that time – but it’s bloody hard work. Farmers are so stuck in their ways and they think they are invincible,” he admits.
Older farmers are the worst culprits – it’s the younger generation, brought up with health and safety, which is much more willing to listen and is therefore a target for safety campaigns, he believes.
The trouble is while the construction industry – which has battled to improve safety over the last few decades – can pass on costs, farmers can’t, he explains.
“We still sell our wheat for £150 whether we are a safe farm or whether we invest zero in safety,” he says.
“A lot of farmers will use that as an excuse. It’s no excuse at all because we should be safe in what we are doing.”
But he adds: “If we actually get young people starting to question the way things are done on the farm that’s where we’ll get real change. It’s the youngsters that are going to make the change.
“A lot of farm safety issues we can track back to a mental health problem with the farmers,” he adds.
It can start with debt or financial worries leading to depression, which then spirals into things not being done as they should be.
“Once you are in depression and have mental health issues it’s a vicious, vicious cycle. Farmers are inherently proud people and they will always be the first to offer help and the last to offer it to themselves. Young people have got the internet and things like that – they are never alone really.”
The coronavirus crisis has only made things harder. Farmers are more isolated, and it’s difficult to get the message across when safety workshops are held online rather than in person.
“We need to work harder. We need to do more training and more awareness. With Covid that’s created a whole load of problems that no one saw coming. Rural isolation is already a problem,” says Ed.
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