Compliance is key – practical considerations for the agriculture sector

5th June 2023

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the fatality rate in the agriculture sector remains the highest of all major industries, in fact, according to HSE statistics, almost four times higher than the all-industry average. Almost one person a week has been killed as a direct result of accidents in the sector, with many more seriously injured. The total cost of injuries to the farming sector is put as high as £279m.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 place duties on agricultural companies, farm operators and individuals to make sure that adequate provision is made for health and safety at work. Under this legislation, employers must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees and any other persons who may be affected by agricultural activities.

Under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR), certain workplace accidents must be reported to the HSE. In the agriculture sector, only 16% of reportable injuries are actually reported. The HSE estimates that annually there could be as many as 10,000 unreported injuries in the industry. Failing to report under RIDDOR can lead to prosecution and imprisonment.

It is very apparent that a key risk to any farm business arises from accidents, illness and death. Serious farm accidents often have devastating effects on farming families and communities. The four most common types of accident on farms (according to the HSE) involve vehicles and machinery, falls from heights, lifting and handling and hazardous substances.

The rate of self-reported illness in agriculture is also significantly higher than the average for all industries. Failing to implement and maintain an effective safety management system will inevitably lead to significant and unwanted operational, financial and reputational cost, with an increasing number of such businesses finding themselves embroiled in inquiries, inquests, regulatory investigations and prosecutions for many years.

What is often apparent is how easily these serious events, and their consequences, could have been avoided or significantly mitigated by more thorough assessment, planning and transparent communication. There are many in the sector that still view risk management as an unwanted/unnecessary cost; many are happy to take the line that ‘it can’t happen to us, we’ve been doing it this way for 20 years’ or ‘if it happens to us, we can handle it.’ Until it does and they don’t, and when it does the effects are profound both on the business and personally. Just asked those that have had to attend inquests and be subject to civil claims for damages and criminal prosecution. That attitude clearly must change. Doing nothing really isn’t an option.

Sue Thompson, the HSE’s head of agriculture stated: “’s regrettable that we’re not yet seeing the widespread changes in attitude towards safety, and the improvements in behaviour that will reduce the numbers of people injured or killed.

“Everyone in agriculture has a role to play in making the changes we all want to see. Together, we can make farming safer.”

A recent example to illustrate the justifiable concerns involved a dairy farm which was fined approximately £63,500 plus prosecution costs, after one of its workers fell more than 20 feet through a fragile roof whilst cleaning gutters on a grain and silage pit shed. The worker, just 18 years old at the time, sustained multiple injuries.

The HSE found the company failed to assess the risk of falls and did not have in place a safe system of work. Wider failings were identified in respect of the information, instruction, training, and supervision provided for the worker involved.

The HSE’s lead inspector commented: “This was a wholly avoidable incident which resulted in life changing injuries. Roughly half the deaths and serious injuries caused by falls in agriculture involve work on fragile roofs. Any work on roofs should be adequately planned and suitable protection should be provided which will normally includes a combination of coverings, guard rails, safety nets and safety harnesses.”

It has been demonstrated that keeping people safe in the workplace has positive impacts on productivity, profitability and business growth, whilst also creating opportunities within new markets and supply chains.

Workers, who believe the business is serious about looking after their welfare, will be more motivated and less likely to go off absent or leave altogether. It will also reduce the likelihood of claims, fines, ever-increasing insurance premiums as well as operational disruption and reputational damage. So where’s the downside to effective risk management?

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