Farmers are being advised to dedicate time and resources to health and safety standards to avoid falling foul of government inspections.
Matt McWhirter, of Ayrshire-based Farmers and Mercantile Insurance Brokers, is urging farmers to take workplace risk seriously or face severe penalties, following the launch of targeted on-farm inspections by the Health and Safety Executive. Inspectors are currently visiting 100 Scottish farms as part of HSE efforts to reduce high rates of death and serious injury, and change attitudes to risk.
New sentencing guidelines, mean farming companies with up to a £2m turnover found to have breached the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 could face fines of up to £450,000, and individuals could receive unlimited fines or a two-year prison sentence. In 2017/18, the HSE issued 272 improvement notices and 68 prohibition notices and out of 17 prosecution cases, 16 resulted in a guilty verdict - fines averaging £19,000.
“These tougher penalties are meant to act as a deterrent and farmers should be aware that lapses in judgement, or a failure to take a proactive approach to safety, could cripple their operations,” said Matt.
“Agriculture is an industry in which risks are poorly managed, evidenced by persistently high rates of death, serious injury and ill-health.
“There are a number of factors that make managing risk a challenge – more farmers are having to work alone, to an older age, and with more high-powered machinery. More and more farmers are also under financial strain, so dedicating precious time and resources to managing risk may be a low priority for them – particularly if they are self-employed.
“But farmers cannot afford to simply pay lip service to health and safety.
“A lax attitude to health and safety policies, letting standards slip or ineffectively managing risk is a false economy; if breaches are found during inspections or after workplace incidents, farmers will find themselves in hot water, facing huge fines or even jail-time.”
Agriculture represents just 1.2 per cent of the workforce in Great Britain but accounts for 20 per cent of reported work-related fatalities each year. HSE has previously estimated the economic cost of workplace injury and ill health in agriculture to be £293m.
In 2017/18, 33 people were killed in agriculture – around 18 times higher than the all industry fatal injury rate – and 13,000 people are estimated to suffer from a non-fatal injury – double the all industry rate. Additionally, there are estimated to be 15,000 cases of occupational ill-health reported to be caused or made worse by work each year.
During farm visits, inspectors will look at key risk areas, including machinery, falls from height, and livestock – which account for many of the fatal and non-fatal injuries – as well as child safety. Two children were killed in agriculture last year – the youngest being just four years old.
Matt said that farmers should not be panicked by these inspections and that it presents an opportunity to implement robust risk management procedures, if they are not already in place.
He said: “The best way to deal with a HSE inspection is to ensure that you are compliant with health and safety law. We know farmers are incredibly busy and may feel they do not have the time to review, implement and enforce better health and safety standards.
“But farmers can take simple, practical steps to improve their performance. Firstly, they should identify the risks posed by their business and create health and safety policies aimed at reducing these risks. Robust risk assessments and regular health and safety training will help ensure standards do not slip.
“Farmers who are hard-pressed for time should consider appointing someone within the business to look after health and safety policies and procedures, ensuring they have the training and knowledge required, or seek support from an external expert, who can identify gaps and missed opportunities, as well as make recommendations for improvements.”
Matt said that farmers should also bear in mind the tougher penalties imposed on those who breach health and safety laws.
“These tougher penalties are meant to act as a deterrent – and farmers should be aware that lapses in judgement, or a failure to take a proactive approach to safety, could cripple their operations,” added Matt.