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. The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) annual report into workplace fatal injuries (published on 6 July 2022) disclosed that, of the 123 workers killed in work-related accidents across the United Kingdom in 2021/22, 22 deaths occurred in the agriculture sector. Only last month, a teenage farmer was killed in an accident involving a bale-wrapping machine.
Breaches of health and safety matters are best illustrated by several court prosecutions since the start of the year:
- In February, a farmer was prosecuted after a 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.
- In March, a farmer was prosecuted following a worker suffering multiple injuries as a consequence of becoming entangled in a potato harvester. The HSE investigation identified that the farmer had failed to implement a safe stop procedure, which would have prevented the accident from happening. The farmer was fined approximately £5,000 and required to pay costs of just under £6,000.
- A livestock auction mart was also prosecuted and fined after an employee was fatally injured by a dairy bull they were helping to load onto a lorry. During the subsequent investigation, it was identified that there were insufficient barriers for those handling livestock to shelter behind if the animals became unsettled. The company was fined £18,000.
Given the number of fatal and non-fatal injuries to employees across the agricultural, fisheries and forestry sectors 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. Landowners 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 and rural land management are complex working environments 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.
Land managers should not be lulled into a false sense of security or complacency, or adopt an “it won’t happen to me” mentality. Nor should the isolated or remote nature of the work mean greater risks are accepted “just to get the job done”. There are relatively simple actions they can take to reduce the risk of injury:
- switch off the power to vehicles/machinery before carrying out 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; and
- use safe and appropriate equipment when working at height.
There are implications for insurance cover where risk has not been managed effectively.
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.
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, Partner in our health and safety team.