• Kenneth Cook

Farm Safety Week – what to be aware of

18th to 22nd July is Farm Safety Week, marking the need to raise awareness amongst both businesses and workers in the agricultural sector about the level of risk and safety measures that can help to reduce it.

The statistics

That the agricultural sector is a dangerous one is in no doubt – statistics show that in the year from April 2021 to March 2022, agriculture was the joint 2nd most dangerous sector for fatalities, behind construction and level with manufacturing. 22 people were killed in the sector, a significant reduction from 34 the previous year but no cause for complacency.

When assessed by the rate of deaths per 100,000 workers, agriculture comes out at 8.03, far and away the worst rate of all the sectors and 21 times higher than the all-industry rate.

The risk to self-employed people

Over the 5-year period 2017/18-2021/22, almost two thirds of fatal injuries in the agriculture sector were to self-employed workers. The agricultural sector often relies on seasonal and temporary workers to carry out jobs as and when they arise, and this goes a long way to explaining why the proportion of self-employed people killed in the sector is so high. Regular farm employees will be far more aware of the environment and its hazards, compared to someone who has never visited the farm before and may not be familiar with the agricultural sector, its risks and safety concerns.

Current risks

Breathing hazards

As we enter harvest season, one particular risk is ill health resulting from breathing in dusts or chemicals. This includes harmful dusts from harvesting or handling grain. Exposure to dust over a prolonged period may lead to serious lung conditions, including asthma, chronic bronchitis and farmer’s lung (the outcome of an allergic response to a group of microbes, which form mould on vegetable matter in storage).

Control and safety measures

Breathing in harmful substances can be avoided by:

  • using alternative, safer substances where possible;

  • changing to low dust materials;

  • enclosing sources of dust or spray;

  • vacuuming spillages instead of sweeping up.

The amount breathed in can be reduced by:

  • using local exhaust ventilation;

  • using effective filters in tractor or vehicle cabs;

  • maintaining filters to the manufacturer's instructions;

  • improving ventilation in buildings;

  • wearing appropriate, effective respiratory protective equipment.

Working in the sun

The UK is currently experiencing a heatwave and this can have serious effects for workers whose jobs require them to be outside for long periods – either farm workers or those involved in construction on farm buildings or other projects.

There is an increased risk of:

  • heat rash,

  • severe thirst and dehydration,

  • sunburn,

  • fainting,

  • heat exhaustion,

  • heat stroke,

  • premature skin ageing, and

  • skin cancer.

Lack of hydration can also lead to disorientation which will increase the chances of mistakes being made with machinery or critical safety decisions.

Working in remote locations

Farms can cover a significant size, and it’s possible that workers will be working at some distance from the main farm building itself. As with any lone working situation, regular check-ins can confirm that the worker is still in good health and safe. Protection from the sun, including head covering and sunblock, can reduce the risk of heat stroke, as can scheduled breaks and regular hydration. If the worker shows any signs of dehydration, then they need to move to a cool place and increase their hydration levels, but not to such a degree as might be dangerous.

If workers are carrying out tasks in a remote area of the farm, then arranging for them to return to a source of potable water whenever needed will serve to alleviate or reduce the risk of dehydration.

When working hard or at a high rate in heat stress conditions, employees should consume – on average - about half a pint of water every 15 minutes. Of course, depending on what kind of work is being carried out, this may not be practical and therefore, workers should aim for drinking about a pint of water per hour before starting work and a similar amount during their rest periods.

Symptoms of heatstroke

When working outside in hot conditions, workers should be aware of the signs of heatstroke, as identifying it early could literally be a lifesaver. Symptoms include:

· Feeling unwell after 30 minutes of resting in a cool place and drinking plenty of water.

· Not sweating even while feeling too hot.

· A high temperature of 40C or above.

· Fast breathing or shortness of breath.

· Feeling confused.

· A fit or seizure

· Loss of consciousness.

· Not responsive.

Control measures

There are simple controls that can make outdoor work easier in hot weather:

  • Postpone or reschedule work where possible to cooler parts of the day.

  • Encourage more frequent breaks in shaded areas.

  • Make sure clothing is made from breathable and moisture-wicking fabrics - for example, cotton

  • Supply mechanical aids, if possible.

  • Provide shaded areas to work where possible.

  • Supply free cool drinking water.

  • Encourage the removal of personal protective equipment when resting to help encourage heat loss.

Educate employees

Employees should be encouraged to take care of their welfare, particularly in challenging weather. Employers can remind them of the risks of outdoor working and advise them to:

  • wear a high factor sunscreen;

  • wear appropriate sun protective clothing;

  • drink plenty of water;

  • take regular breaks;

  • look out for any changes in their skin such as new moles, or moles that change.