24 MAY 2017
ICSA president Patrick Kent has said an ESRI report on “Risk-taking and Accidents on Irish Farms” has captured an essential truth that a major risk factor is the lack of adequate help for performing difficult tasks. Mr Kent said that this should cause reflection among public representatives and agencies who have tended to ascribe the blame for farm safety issues on farmers.
“We have seen examples of this in terms of hysterical calls to cut farm subsidies or to impose fines, when in fact this would further exacerbate a root cause which is that farmers can neither afford nor find extra help on farms particularly at busy times.”
ICSA has frequently warned that the pressure being put on farmers to run faster to stand still cannot continue without adverse consequences. “We see the madness of farmers expanding stock numbers significantly without any real understanding of how all the extra work can be performed. The traditional sixty cow dairy farm which used to deliver a good standard of living is derided as small scale. Worse still is that most cattle and sheep farms are no longer viable and can only be sustained by off-farm work.”
“So how does a farmer get the extra help for difficult tasks when many of his neighbours are gone by day working the off-farm job and rushing to catch up in the evenings when they come home. Meanwhile the Farm Relief Services are unable to keep up with the demand for help at busy times. We also have to confront the question how can a farm where viability is measured as giving the farmer the minimum agricultural wage hire extra help when it simply isn’t possible to hire competent help at the minimum wage any more in many parts of the country?
With more and more family members abandoning rural areas to work in the cities, the traditional source of help is drying up and the age profile of farmers is getting worse by the year. I would seriously question the finding that age was not closely linked to farm safety when we see years where over 25% of fatalities involve farmers who are past retirement age in other sectors.”
Mr Kent did however take exception to the report’s findings that work stress was not a significant factor in whether farmers were more likely to engage in risky behaviour. “This flies in the face of logic and what ICSA is hearing on the ground. We know that farmers are working very long hours with little or no help just to stay afloat and break even. It is our experience that stress and the pressure associated with low incomes are indeed risk factors as far as farming health and safety are concerned. Moreover, farm safety studies are detached from stress related illness and mortality such as heart attacks, cancers and suicide. Of course it is difficult to link such outcomes solely to stress as other factors can be involved but it is important to keep the debate in context as premature death on a farm is tragic regardless of cause.”
Mr Kent lamented some media reports which zoned in on protective clothing such as high-vis vests. While this is included in the ESRI report, it is not the conclusion of the report that this is the major issue. Mr Kent added that we must not get carried away with the notion that there are simple quick fix solutions based on practices in industry or other sectors.
“With farmers working alone, it is dubious that a high-vis vest would mitigate much risk and it is hard to know what use a high-vis vest is with a recently calved cow. If anything it could add to the risk.”
“The key point is that health and safety solutions in other sectors are essentially designed around multiple person teams working in close proximity to the public whether on building sites, in factories or public services. It is very hard to transfer this to single operators on isolated farms dealing with unpredictable animals and unpredictable events such as calving and whether. It is clear that we need a major examination of the squeezing of farm margins by processors and retailers coupled with the scarcity of labour and how this is impacting on farm safety. You can’t continually demand that an aging work force works harder and faster for less return and then express shock that farm safety is compromised.”