Opinion

Farm Safety Week: ‘It’s hard to deny farming is the only UK industry which kills children in the workplace’

Farm Safety Week for 2020 may be nearly over, but vigilance must continue throughout the whole year writes NFU Scotland vice-president Charlie Adam.

A wide range of information, videos and advice has been provided across all media by NFU Scotland, the Farm Safety Foundation, SAYFC as well as HSE and others in an effort to consolidate and continue the welcome reduction in Scottish farm deaths and injuries recorded this year compared to last.

As Scottish farmers, we are justifiably proud of our industry and the farming methods we employ to supply top quality food produced to the highest standards and with great attention to the welfare of our livestock and care for the environment.

Unfortunately, our past record on health and safety shows we sometimes do not exercise the same care for ourselves and those around us.

Along with the rest of the UK, Scottish agriculture’s enviable reputation has been tarnished by the high incidence of accidental death and serious injury occurring on farms and crofts, leaving us with the worst safety record of any industry by a considerable margin.

A recent comment described agriculture as ‘the only industry in the UK which kills children in the workplace’ – a harsh and cruel statement and certainly not how we want to be perceived, but difficult to deny.

This is unacceptable and great efforts continue to be made to help us to improve our record. This seems to be having the desired effect. Ultimately, though, lasting improvement will only come about through a change of culture on the part of every individual working in the industry.

It is encouraging, therefore, and a credit to a great many farmers and farm staff, to see a reduction in the number of farm fatalities in Scotland this year compared to last, but let’s not fool ourselves. There is no room for complacency and still a long way to go if this improvement is to be sustained.

As SAYFC’s valuable contribution to Farm Safety Week shows, it seems likely that the younger generation’s more sensible approach to farm safety is a factor in the fall in Scottish farm deaths.

In contrast, the statistics show that those most likely to suffer accidental death or injury on-farm are self-employed older males – a category which includes me!

Many people on farms do take this subject very seriously, so in writing this column I’m uncomfortable and aware that I may seem unfair, soft or ‘holier than thou’ to some who, like me, have been going about their business relatively unscathed for years – even if that’s some times more by good luck than good judgement.

It’s very tempting to turn a blind eye, ignore the problem and avoid rocking the boat. It doesn’t help that I know I may have sometimes taken unnecessary risks or done things in an unsafe way out of habit, or to avoid spending money, but if we don’t change workplace injuries will continue to happen.

The harsh reality is accidents don’t just happen to ‘other people’, they can and do happen to the likes of you and me and that will continue if we don’t change.

It’s all too easy to think you are only responsible to yourself in taking a risk, especially if you’re self-employed, under stress or worried about costs, but if you are killed or injured you put an enormous and lasting burden on your family and those close to you.

We don’t have to look far on many farms, or in pictures in the press and on social media, to see examples of risky behaviour. We must recognise what is really important and take our heads out of the sand.

The immediate future may well prove a time of increased mental, physical and financial stress for many in farming because of the fallout from Covid 19, the uncertainty over trade deals, markets, future support and many other things.

Under that pressure, it’s all too easy to make mistakes, cut corners and take risks which may have tragic consequences. We owe it to ourselves to stop, think and keep things in proportion. We must take safety seriously and help others to do the same.

Let’s all do that and build on the improving trend we’ve seen this year.

NFU Scotland vice-president Charlie Adam