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 is often brought into sharp focus when the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) releases its annual work-related statistics.
For 2022/23, there were 21 workers killed in work-related accidents in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries. That reaches a total of 27 deaths when one adds in six members of the public who were fatally injured on British farms (with the main cause of death being injuries caused by animals).
Earlier this year, the HSE launched a campaign with the objective of reducing farm vehicle deaths and injuries. That was not surprising given that farm vehicles not only play a vital role in farm work but are the number one cause of deaths and serious injuries on British farms.
Earlier in 2023, a farmer was prosecuted when a teenager suffered serious head injuries after a six-tonne dumper overturned. Although the farmer gave the boy a briefing before driving the dumper, the farmer did not make any enquiries as to the boy’s age or relevant experience in respect of the task that was to be undertaken (which was the excavating and levelling of land on the farm).
In the event, the young worker was only on the farm for a matter of hours before the accident occurred. Although the worker made a full recovery, it was only luck that meant the outcome was not more serious. The farmer pled guilty to a contravention of section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and was accordingly fined.
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.
In addition, those employing agricultural workers in Scotland have a number of obligations under the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Order (AWO), including an obligation to allow their employees to attend up to two days’ health and safety training each year should the employees request.
Employers are also entitled to require that their employees attend such training. Where an employee is unable to attend the training due to injury, illness or any other authorised absence, the employee can still enforce their right to the training (or be required to attend by the employer) within the first four months of the following holiday year.
The AWO is reviewed and updated annually taking effect from 1 April each year, with the most current one being the AWO 2023 alongside the up-to-date guidance.
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:
- injury caused by livestock;
- slips, trips and falls, particularly from height;
- 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 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.
- Use safe and appropriate equipment when working at height.
- 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 like 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.