About health and safety in agriculture

In the last ten years, almost one person a week has been killed as a direct result of agricultural work. Many more have been seriously injured or made ill by their work.

People have a right to return home from work safe and sound. Good farmers and employers recognise the benefits of reducing incidents and ill health among their workers, and are aware of the financial and other reasons to aim for and maintain good standards of health and safety.

Health and safety is a fundamental requirement of a sustainable farming business and should be regarded as an essential part of farm business management. Unwise risk-taking is an underlying problem in the industry and those working on their own are especially vulnerable.

The personal costs of injury and ill health can be devastating. Life is never the same again for family members left behind after a work-related death, or for those looking after someone with a long-term illness or serious injury caused by their work.

Managing risks in a sensible way protects you, your family, your workers and your business and can bring the following benefits:

  • a reduction in injuries and ill health and the resulting financial and personal costs;
  • improved productivity, good morale and a happier, healthier workforce;
  • better farming practice to help develop a sustainable farming business;
  • the ability to carry out weather-critical operations at the right time;
  • reduced sickness payments and recruitment/training costs for replacement workers;
  • reduced loss of output resulting from experienced and competent workers being off work;
  • longer life for equipment and machinery;
  • less chance of damage to machinery, buildings and product;
  • lower insurance premiums and legal costs;
  • less chance of enforcement action and its costs, eg the cost of dealing with an incident and/or fines;
  • reduced risk of damage to the reputation of the business.

Injuries and ill health in agriculture

Farming is a hazardous industry. Farmers and farm workers work with potentially dangerous machinery, vehicles, chemicals, livestock, at height or near pits and silos. They are exposed to the effects of bad weather, noise and dust. The risks also include family members working at the farm and children living at the farm.

Agricultural work can also be physically demanding and the repetitive nature of the work causes a range of health problems, including severe back pain.

With high numbers and rates of fatal injury, agriculture, forestry and fishing is the riskiest industry sector. Just over one in a hundred workers (employees and the self-employed) work in agriculture, but it accounts for about one in five fatal injuries to workers. Further information on numbers and rates of injury and ill health in agriculture can be found at:

The costs and causes of death and injury

The total annual cost of injuries (in farming, forestry and horticulture) to society is estimated at £190 million (1) and around two-thirds of that is due to reportable injuries (£130 million), with fatalities accounting for around another third (£55 million).

The most common causes of death are:

  • transport – being struck by moving vehicles;
  • being struck by a moving or falling object, eg bales, trees etc;
  • falls from height;
  • asphyxiation or drowning;
  • contact with machinery;
  • injury by an animal;
  • being trapped by something collapsing or overturning;
  • contact with electricity, nearly two-thirds of which involves overhead power lines (OHPLs).

There are many more injuries which do not result in death. Less than half of reportable injuries to workers across all industry sectors are reported each year, but the level for agriculture, forestry and fishing is much lower. Surveys suggest that of those injuries to workers in agriculture (the most serious) which should be reported by law, only 16% are actually reported. HSE estimates that there could be as many as 10 000 unreported injuries in the industry each year. Each one involves costs to the injured person and to the business.

The most common causes of non-fatal injuries are:

  • slip, trip or fall on the same level;
  • being struck by moving, including flying or falling, objects;
  • falls from height;
  • contact with machinery;
  • being injured by an animal.

People working in the industry can also be permanently disabled by ill health. Breathing in dusts, handling loads, being exposed to noise or vibration, using chemicals and working with animals can all cause ill health, with symptoms that can take years to develop. In some cases this can result in premature death.

Many of those in the industry do not consult their doctor unless seriously ill and so levels of ill health are unclear. However, in agriculture:

  • about 12 000 people suffered from an illness which was caused or made worse by their current or most recent job;
  • musculoskeletal injury (back pain, sprains or strains) is over three times the rate for all industries;
  • the number of people affected by asthma is twice the national average;
  • about 20 000 people are affected by zoonoses (diseases passed from animals to humans) each year.

Workers may be exposed to extreme heat, cold, high humidity and radiation from direct and prolonged exposure to the sun (all of which imposes stress on the worker). They may also be exposed to excessive vibration, noise, or may have to work in uncomfortable positions for long periods and handle a wide range of chemicals such as fertilisers or pesticides.

1. Source: Costs to Britain of workplace injuries and work-related ill health: 2010/11 update HSE 2010. Back

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