The tragic deaths of Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence, his brother Graham and his father Noel in a freak accident on their family farm in Hillsborough, Co. Down at the weekend is a harrowing reminder to the farming community in this country of the inherent dangers associated with the sector.
While details are still unclear as to what exactly happened on the Spence farm on Saturday, reports suggest that the three men were overcome by fumes as they attempted to save the family pet from a tunnel under the slurry tank.
Tragically for the Spences, this was probably a knee-jerk reaction by one of the men, who didn’t fully comprehend how dangerous slurry tanks can be or just how quickly someone can be overcome by fumes.
However, it is an accident that could have happened – and could yet happen – anywhere on this island, as the farming sector continues to top the charts as the most dangerous work environment.
Figures from Teagasc show that 2,000 injuries occur on farms each year, while, according to the Health and Safety Authority (H&SA), 22 of the 54 work place deaths in 2011 and 22 of the 48 deaths in 2010 were in the agri sector, up from ten deaths in 2009 and at a time when workplace accidents as a whole are decreasing across the board.
Twenty-eight per cent of the farm deaths between 2000 and 2010 were due to vehicles, 21 per cent was due to machinery, 19 per cent were due to collapses and falls, 14 per cent were due to livestock and18 per cent were attributed to other causes.
The H&SA is doing its part. There are numerous rules and regulations regarding best work practises and it carried out 3,000 farm inspections in 2011, issuing both prohibition and improvement notices.
Such campaigns have found that levels of compliance are slowly increasing, but Ireland still has over twice the incidence of farm accidents as other European countries.
Of course, the greatest threat to farm safety is often farmers themselves, who are prone to taking risks, over-estimating their own abilities, or who cut corners as they are pushed to the pin of their collar to make ends meet in a sector that still only returns an average wage of €25,000 per annum. The statistics are unlikely to change any time soon if farmers don’t take heed and appreciate the dangers that are there every day.