Male farmer engineer stand next to tractor and uses mobile application on digital tablet PC. Mechanic online optimizes work of small businesses in production of products and repairs machinery.

At the end of October 2023, it was announced that HSE inspectors would be visiting farms across England, Scotland and Wales in a two-pronged attack on the worryingly high level of deaths and injuries in the agricultural sector, not just amongst farm workers but also the general public.

The inspections will aim to confront negative attitudes to safety and address the culture within the industry as well as checking for compliance with what the law requires regarding health and safety on farms.

Alastair Gray, Solicitor Advocate and Head of Scotland at rradar said:

“The HSE announcement marks a clear change in its regulatory approach to farming businesses. The traditional approach of education and awareness has not led to a significant reduction in incidents, and the upcoming inspections are designed to get the message across that the HSE wants to see a change in attitude towards health and safety in farming immediately. Farming businesses should make sure that their health and safety arrangements are fully compliant in anticipation of these inspections and should seek external help now if they are unsure. The HSE will not hesitate to impose Prohibition and Improvement notices where breaches are identified, and cases of significant non-compliance are likely to be considered for prosecution. Any material breach identified is likely to lead to a Fee For Intervention being payable to HSE, which could prove expensive for the business in question, in addition to the costs of defending a prosecution if one is raised. This is truly a scenario in which taking action now could save farmers significant costs in the coming months.”

The scale of the problem

The HSE releases an annual report on fatal injuries in agriculture, forestry and fishing in Great Britain. The latest report shows that from April 2022 to March 2023, of the 27 people killed, 21 were workers, with a three-year-old child among six members of the public to lose their lives.

Since 2018, 161 people have died on farms, including members of the public and children. This is an average of 26 people per year, or one every two weeks.

The focus of the campaign

In order to maximise the effect of the inspections, which will run till April 2024, inspectors will focus on the main causes of death in the agricultural sector.

These include working with cattle, operating and maintaining vehicles and falls from height.

The inspectors will also examine the risks to members of the public; this will mainly concentrate on the management of cattle around public rights of way, but they will also look at how to keep children safe on farms – not just members of farming families but visitors to the farm and its immediate locale.

The HSE estimates that over the period of the campaign, they will carry out 440 visits.

The inspectors won’t just be checking on whether farmers are aware of the risks related to farming activity but also ensuring that they understand their responsibility to themselves and others. During the inspections, there will be a focus on the actions farmers have taken and are undertaking to control those risks and ensure full compliance with the law.

The HSE is keen to stress that it is not out to punish farmers who genuinely want to do the right thing. The regulator frequently gives advice on safe practice to key industry stakeholders, including at agricultural shows and is a key member of the Farm Safety Partnership.

What can be done?

Action to reduce the key risks on farms is not a huge ask; there are many simple steps that can be taken and the HSE has published guidance on the most common danger areas:

Vehicle safety

Cattle handling

Working at height

Children on farms

Other hazards

The HSE inspections may also focus on health hazards associated with farm environments, including inhaling dust, load handling, noise or vibration from farm machinery, exposure to chemicals and working with animals.

The number of people affected by asthma in the agricultural sector is twice the national average, and about 20,000 people are affected by diseases passed from animals to humans each year.

Farm workers who work outside may be exposed to extremes of heat and cold, as well as humidity and exposure to the sun.

If you’re concerned about safety issues on your farm, it pays to speak to an experienced legal professional, who can walk through the areas of concern and give you guidance on what you need to do and how to do it.