Managing health and safety risks in the agricultural sector
Agricultural and rural settings present significant health and safety risks, which must be carefully managed and mitigated by employers and landowners operating in the sector. This was brought into sharp focus after two fatalities led to prosecutions following investigations by The Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
In February, a farmer was prosecuted after a tragic fatal incident on farmland in Leeds. An 83-year old man was trampled and killed by cattle while following a public right of way across a farm with his wife, who also suffered serious injuries. The cattle were with their calves, which greatly increased the risk posed to any members of the public accessing the field. The farmland’s owner pled guilty to a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 for failing to implement measures mitigating the risk caused by his livestock. He was sentenced to a 12-week suspended prison sentence and was required to pay an £878 fine, plus £7,820.30 in costs.
In March, a farmer was prosecuted after his four-year-old nephew was run over after falling from a farm vehicle. Children under 13 are prohibited from riding on, or operating, vehicles used in agricultural operations. The farmer pled guilty to a breach of the 1974 Act. He was sentenced to a 26-week prison sentence (suspended for 18 months), a community order (which included 250 hours of unpaid work), and ordered to pay costs of over £5,000.
These cases followed the publication by HSE of statistics detailing an average of 34 fatal injuries to employees across the agricultural, fisheries and forestry sectors between 2018/19 and 2020/21, and an average of 12,000 non-fatal injuries during the same period. It is vital that those operating within this sector are aware of the risks involved, and do everything in their power to prevent finding themselves in breach of health and safety regulations designed to protect their employees and the public.
What duties are placed upon me as a landowner or employer?
The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 sets out a number of duties applicable to all employers, including those within the agricultural sector. Employers owe a duty of care to their employees and to “persons other than their employees”, i.e. the general public. While the duties owed to employees are more specific, a general duty is owed by employers/landowners not to expose the general public to any health and safety risks.
This general duty imposes a broad requirement on farm owners to ensure no part of their property poses a health and safety risk to the general public. A number of risks can arise from public access to farmland. Owners of such premises should conduct a regular assessment of the risks relevant to their land and any necessary mitigations which should be undertaken to prevent the public from coming to harm as a result of these risks.
What are the most common causes of accidents in an agricultural setting?
It is evident from the HSE’s statistics that the main causes of accidents within the agricultural sector can be categorised as follows:
- slips, trips and falls, particularly from height;
- injury caused by livestock;
- injury caused by contact with farm machinery; and/or
- being struck by an object, either moving or stationary (including being struck by a moving vehicle).
What steps can landowners and employers take to manage risk?
Farming is a complex working environment and, given the risks posed by large machinery, operational decision-making on farms should place far greater emphasis on the health and safety of farmers and farm workers.
Farmers should not be lulled into a false sense of security or complacency, nor should they adopt an “it won’t happen to me” mentality. There are relatively simple actions they can take to reduce the risk of injury:
- switch off the power to vehicles/machinery before carrying our repairs;
- keep workers at a safe distance from moving vehicles;
- ensure workers are kept at a safe distance during loading/unloading operations;
- regularly maintain farm structures and land;
- use safe and appropriate equipment when working at height; and
- keep cows/calves away from fields with public footpaths.
Plainly, the emphasis must be on the effective management of risk. However, it would appear that lessons are not being learnt in the agricultural sector in the same way that they are in others. There are also implications for insurance cover where risk has not been managed effectively.
Shepherd and Wedderburn’s health and safety team can provide comprehensive advice on risk assessments and the prevention of incidents in the workplace. We can also offer guidance on investigations and prosecutions. For more information, please contact Hamish Lean, our Head of Rural Property, or Kevin Clancy in our Health and Safety Team.