Health and safety in agriculture and the HSE’s new farm inspection programme

At the end of March the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) concluded a two-month long targeted inspection programme of agricultural sites across the UK, as part of its focus on improving safety standards within the farming industry.

Inspectors visited farms in south west and eastern England, mid and north Wales and central Scotland, selected following completion by the HSE of its new ACE (Agricultural Compliance Event) initiative, which launched in October 2018.

It is estimated that between January and March 2019, in the region of 400 premises were visited by the HSE. During the visits, inspectors focused on key risk areas, including machinery, falls from height, and livestock – which account for many of the fatal and non-fatal injuries – as well as child safety when visiting farms.

Agricultural risks

The risks posed to farmers and farm workers are numerous and the agricultural sector has been high on the HSE’s priority list for a number of years. Risk to life is posed by working:

  • With potentially dangerous machinery
  • In close proximity to livestock, vehicles, and chemicals
  • At height or near pits and silos.

Injuries and illnesses are also caused by handling loads, being exposed to noise or vibration, using chemicals and working with animals.

In 2018 the HSE reported on fatal injuries in agriculture, forestry and fishing, which included the following findings:

  • 33 fatalities in agriculture between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018 – approximately 18 times higher than the published all-industry fatal injury rate.
  • Contact with livestock was responsible for the highest number of fatalities (eight), six deaths involving moving vehicles and five deaths resulting from entrapment by vehicles, equipment, machinery or logs.
  • The HSE estimates there are approximately 13,000 non-fatal injuries each year, and 17,000 cases of ill health, especially lung disease and musculoskeletal disorders.

Contributing factors

The unique nature of the farming industry also presents its own risks. Many farms are small, family run businesses with farmers often working long beyond the usual retirement age. An examination of the fatalities which occurred within the sector between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018, reveals that of the 33 people fatally injured, 14 were aged over 65. This included four people over the age of 80. Compared to younger age groups the fatal injury rate is nearly three times higher in those aged 60-64 and over five times higher in those aged 65 and over.

Often working alone for at least some of the working day (whilst on its own does not necessarily increase the risk of injury or death), means it can take much longer for the alarm to be raised and help dispatched.

Further risks include working very long hours, working in adverse weather conditions, outdoor working and work at night. Combined with an older than average working age and a high prevalence of lone working, this has led to agriculture being consistently one of the riskiest industry sectors.

Prosecution of organisations and individuals

The Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences Definitive Guideline (Sentencing Guideline), introduced in 2016, has led to significantly higher fines for companies convicted of health and safety breaches and has lowered the custody threshold for individuals who are convicted.

Since the introduction of the Sentencing Guideline there have been a number of prosecutions of farming partnerships and farm owners and managers. A notable example was the prosecution of Clinton Farms Devon Partnership (CFDP) and its farm manager following the death of a 25 year old farm worker after the tractor and trailer he was using crashed on farm land in 2014.

The prosecution was brought jointly by the HSE and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). CFDP was charged with corporate manslaughter and a breach of Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The farm manager was charged with gross negligence manslaughter as well as a health and safety breach. The prosecution of both defendants focused on the mechanics of the trailer's braking system. The prosecution alleged that the farm manager, who had serviced the brakes of the trailer in the days before the accident, failed to ensure that the trailer was properly maintained, and that CFDP had no system in place for monitoring his work.

In February 2019, after a four week trial, the jury found CFDP not guilty of both charges. The farm manager was acquitted in respect of gross negligence manslaughter but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the second charge. The prosecution subsequently confirmed it would not be seeking a retrial.

Whilst the outcome in this case was an acquittal for both defendants, it demonstrates that the HSE and CPS have the resolve to prosecute both companies and individuals following farming accidents.

Assistance to duty holders

The HSE publishes a large volume of advice and guidance for those working in agriculture. As part of its 2019 inspection programme, the HSE promoted the use of its “What a good farm looks like” publication setting out the common areas of risk found on farms and is aimed at helping farmers understand what they can and should have in place to prevent accidents and ill health. It is available for free download on the HSE’s website.

Read other items in Health, Safety and Environment Brief - April 2019