I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his appointment and wish him an equally long tenure.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the issue of farm safety. While my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen, through his responsibility for the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, has primary responsibility for health and safety on farms, I am particularly supportive of the farm safety agenda and improving the safety record on farms. I have seen at first hand the devastation that follows farm accidents and fatalities. Their impact on families and communities is unquantifiable. As Minister, it is my intention to be a vocal advocate for safety and vigilance to ensure farms are the safest working environments possible. Accordingly, I take the opportunity to highlight the second UK and Ireland farm safety week which has been running since Monday. This is a positive addition to the HSA’s own farm safety campaign which ran in April this year. This farm safety awareness week offers five days of themed, practical farm safety advice and guidance to farmers, urging them to consider the slogan, “Who Would Fill Your Boots”, if they had a farm accident.
Farm safety is a critical issue facing farming. Statistics show that accidents on farms cause more workplace deaths than all other occupations combined. Between 2004 and 2013, there were 176 fatal farm accidents, a shocking statistic. To date this year, there have been eight fatal farm accidents on farms. These eight fatal farm accidents account for more than 40% of all fatal work accidents so far in 2016, while farming accounts for less than 6% of the workforce. While this is a welcome reduction, the rate of accidents on farms remains high and it is important the focus on farm safety is maintained.
Injuries and fatalities are caused in a several ways but the two highest areas of accidents relate to tractors and machinery and livestock. So far this year, tractors and machinery account for 75% of all fatal farm accidents. It is important farmers maintain all their tractors and machinery in good working order. This is part of being a good farmer. Farmers need to be reminded that accidents with tractors and machinery are the cause of the greatest number of fatal farm accidents. The pattern is being repeated again this year. Machinery and tractor maintenance should be seen as a routine part of farm work and that it is an essential expenditure to ensure a safe and profitable farming enterprise.
Cattle can be unpredictable, particularly cows with newly or recently born calves. A cow with a calf may see the approach of a person as a threat to her calf and may, naturally, take action to defend her calf, particularly if there is a dog present. It is important, therefore, to take great care when approaching or handling a cow and calf to prevent an accident from occurring. It is important to remember all animals can be unpredictable, especially when they are confined or there is poor visibility. Although most animal incidents are not fatal, many men, women and children are needlessly injured every year due to a lack of safety awareness.
Behavioural change is urgently required to minimise risk and prevent future accidents. In support of this, my Department has several ongoing initiatives in farm safety. As part of all of TAMS II, the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, it is mandatory for all applicants to have completed a minimum of a half-day farm safety course before they can claim grant aid. This will ensure a farm safety statement has been completed on all of these farms, while for all of TAMS II, all structures must be completed in accordance with the Department’s building specifications. These specifications set out the minimum standard to which all work must be completed and include safety related requirements, such as ensuring all slurry agitation points are outside a building.
In addition to the grant aid schemes, there is a mandatory health and safety element included in all knowledge transfer groups which I am supporting under the 2014 to 2020 rural development programme. These groups will directly engage with approximately 27,000 farmers with farm safety right across the sectors and, most importantly, in a setting where they are among their farming neighbours and peers. This year, as in the past four years, my Department has issued a farm safety leaflet to more than 130,000 farmers. This was included in the basic payment scheme application pack. This year the leaflet focused on slurry safety and the impact of non-fatal farm accidents.
The aftermath of a farm fatality is a particularly difficult time for those left behind. To support families who have suffered a sudden loss and who may not have experience in dealing with the Department, there is a co-ordinated single point of contact in the Department. This is to assist families in dealing with my Department’s schemes and services to ensure they get the assistance they require. As a further commitment to farm safety, my Department is an active member of the farm safety partnership advisory committee which brings together all of the industry stakeholders. My officials are in regular contact with the Health and Safety Authority to ensure a co-ordinated approach to farm safety. In addition, a North-South farm safety group has been established involving my Department, the HSA, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland and the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland. This group provides a strong link on farm safety to ensure a co-ordinated approach across the island.
One area around farm safety that is regularly talked about is the education of children. The HSA has a dedicated section on farm safety for both primary and post-primary schools on its website, including a section on teacher support and resources for the classroom. This website includes safety programmes, videos, games and other publications for teachers and pupils to use. There is also the HSA e-learning website, hsalearning.ie, which includes a section for primary and secondary schools, along with a wide range of other safety training courses.
Considerable efforts are being made to ensure farm safety and health is embedded at all levels in the area of education from primary to third level. In recent years all primary schools were given a small stock of the publication Staying Safe on the Farm with Jessy, designed to be read with children explaining the dangers on farms to children in a pleasant way. Also, several initiatives encouraging both children and parents to think about farm safety have been run including colouring competitions to produce a farm safety calendar. A booklet of safety stories, poems, drawings and sketches by children was produced, which materialised in the production of the publication Only a Giant Can Lift a Bull. This latter publication drew on more than 7,500 entries and, again, was widely distributed to all primary schools. In 2014 all national schools were circulated with information on a new e-learning resource which gave an interactive series of online lessons which included a keep safe on the farm module. This can be viewed on the HSA e-learning website.
While there are many risks in farming, it does not have to be a dangerous occupation. There are plenty of ways to reduce the danger, without spending significant levels of money.
Farmers should be encouraged to take time to plan buildings and work. After all, as farmers, they are the ones who will benefit most.
It is important for everyone to highlight continually the need for farmers to put safety first in all tasks they perform, irrespective of the pressure. No individual action or organisation can solve this difficult problem, which impacts so negatively on so many lives each year. Ultimately, farmers must change their own behaviour regarding their farming practices to ensure they and all others remain safe on farms. My Department, in conjunction with the HSA, is doing everything it can to try to bring about this change.