Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 29 January 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Farm Inspections: Health and Safety Authority
We are in public session. I remind members and witnesses to switch off their mobile phones. I welcome the representatives from the Health and Safety Authority, Mr. Martin O'Halloran, chief executive, Mr. Brian Higgisson, assistant chief executive with responsibility for operational compliance and prevention, and Mr. Pat Griffin, senior inspector. I thank them for attending to discuss with the committee its concerns regarding the Health and Safety Authority's planned proposals on farm inspections.
On the matter of privilege, I note that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. Martin O'Halloran to make his opening statement.
Mr. Martin O'Halloran:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to come and meet with it. As the Chairman pointed out, I am accompanied today by my colleagues, Mr. Brian Higgisson, assistant chief executive, and Mr. Pat Griffin, senior inspector. We have prepared a submission which I do not propose to go through in detail but rather will give a quick overview of some of the main elements within it. We are very happy to deal with questions on any aspects of that detail.
To provide some context, I note that the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, was established in 1989 under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989. Ours is the primary organisation charged with advancing workplace safety in Ireland and we have an extremely broad remit extending to environmental matters, market surveillance, machinery and all sectors of the economy. On the dissolution of Forfás in August 2014 with the integration of some of its functions into the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the Irish National Accreditation Board was integrated with the HSA. The scope of our role is that we have workplace safety and health responsibility for the 1.93 million people in employment but also through the environmental dimension of our work for the 4.6 million people in the State. I have set out in the written submission some of the areas our remit covers. In essence, it is all sectors of the economy and all areas of activity ranging from the self-employed through to the 1,000 employee-plus multinational corporations.
Like every other State organisation during recent years, the HSA has had resource reductions of the order of 24% in staffing and 26% in budget. That appears to be stabilised in 2015, which is a positive note. Notwithstanding the overall diminution in resources, we have increased and maintained the level of resource allocation for agriculture safety. Currently, in excess of 20% of our total resource is allocated to improving farming safety and health for a workforce representing approximately 6% of employment nationally. Resources are allocated on the basis of a legal mandate, which means there are certain tasks and activities which we are legally mandated to carry out and in respect of which we have absolutely no discretion. These include Seveso control of major accident hazards as well as risk profiling by sector and risk profiling by industry with subdivisions within that. We also look at the impact an intervention may have and try to achieve the greatest impact with our resources.
Our policy is to change culture. We try to create culture change in all sectors of the economy. I point members to page 6 of our submission on which there is a graph showing that the efforts of the authority and other players have been very successful since our establishment. Ireland has gone from having approximately six deaths per 100,000 in employment down to a current figure in the region of 2.1 deaths. Overall, we have seen a very positive reduction in fatalities. This reduction in fatalities has been accompanied by a comparable reduction in the level of accident reporting and the economic impacts. However, I now turn to the agriculture sector.
In marked contrast to the story we can relay in relation to the economy in general, the situation in agriculture is not positive. It has not been possible so far to achieve the level of sustained improvement we strive for. While there have been improvements, they have not been sustained. In 2014, 30 fatalities out of the 55 reported were in agriculture. In the ten-year period 2005 to 2010, there were 193 farm fatalities which was an average of approximately 19 per year. That gives a rate of 16 fatalities per 100,000 workers in the farming sector. The rate for 2013 was 59.9 compared with 2.9 across the general working population. This means that a person working in agriculture is approximately eight times more likely to be killed in a workplace accident than a person working in the economy generally.
While Ireland has made very significant progress when one looks at the European comparators, we take the view that one death is too many. Based on the investigations of inspectors of these fatalities, inspections on farms and of serious accidents, the vast majority of fatal accidents can be characterised as foreseeable and preventable. We reiterate that primary responsibility resides with the legal duty holder, in this case the farmer, and we work to support them in that.
Progress has been made in other sectors through achieving a culture change and helping people to understand the right behaviours through the level of awareness. Our approach is to bring about a culture change and this is what will deliver a sustained improvement in farm safety standards.
Bringing about change cannot be achieved by one entity alone. Therefore, our approach has been to work collaboratively. We have bilateral working arrangements with Teagasc and the farming representative organisations. In 2002 we established a farm safety partnership advisory committee which meets a number of times a year. More significantly, a farm safety action plan has been put together. There are five specific goals which have been translated into a series of projects on which specific groups are working.
We also use education, and have interventions at primary, secondary and tertiary level. We provide online educational supports through our website, hsalearning.ie. We provide farm talks and farm walks, conferences and seminars. In one appendix I have outlined some of the indicative activities which take place in the authority. We support other organisations. The experience we have in terms of giving advice and the conduct of inspections or farm safety visits is that they are well received and farmers are generally willing to put in place the recommendations of the inspectors.
There have been a number of occasions when the authority has found it necessary to use the formal enforcement instruments, and generally they are complied with by farmers. We also have communications channels on the HSA YouTube channel where we have survivor stories. We have extensive guidance on a vast range of activities on our website and provide an online tool to help farmers prepare safety statements and identify hazards. Those tools are available free of charge. We work collaboratively, particularly with Teagasc, to ensure that anyone going on to a farm is, to some extent, able to assist in the dialogue.
I will give a flavour of the kind of work we are doing and go through some of the key elements listed on page 12 of our plan for 2015. Our programme of work for 2015 will continue with the same broad approach and themes as have been adopted through 2013 to 2015. Once again, we will work closely with the farm safety partnership advisory committee and the key players. We will run an inspection programme of 2,300 inspections, which is the opening plan. Our plans for inspections are based on a planned proactive element and a reactive element, which is based on notifications of serious accidents and, tragically and regrettably, where fatal accidents have been reported.
The briefing session is taking place today. We are working with Teagasc on how we will roll out the discussion groups. We plan to have involvement with 50 discussion groups or, as they are also known, knowledge transfer groups. They operate on the principle of peer to peer influence and have been used internationally and in Ireland to achieve behavioural change in a number of aspects of farming practice. There is quite a level of academic research in the area which is published, peer reviewed and challenged to show that, as a technique, they are quite efficacious. That is the major shift in the mix of elements.
We will also have significant awareness raising campaigns through print, radio and digital media, and through points of assembly for farmers such as marts and co-ops. We will work with key players in the farming media. We will have the survivor stories on the HSA YouTube channel. People who have had experiences will tell their stories, which are quite powerful. We will have continuous messaging through social media. We will implement the farm safety partnership action plan. As I said, we will work collaboratively with Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on quite a number of initiatives, including close collaboration on discussion groups. We may come back to the Department, which will strongly support the discussion groups.
We will collaborate with our colleagues in Northern Ireland on some all-island initiatives because its experience is very similar. It has a similar profile.
We will carry out market surveillance on the supply chain and products used in agriculture, and we will continue to ensure that, as best we can, the products being used in the agriculture industry are safe and compliant with the appropriate testing and marking.
We will have a HSA marquee and staff presence at the ploughing championships. Typically, of the 150,000 or more people who pass through a very significant portion of the farming community gets advice and information on safety practices. It also includes live demos on PTOs, chainsaws, quad bikes, animal handling and a number of other areas. We will develop a new, free online tool linked to our BeSMART tool. We currently have more than 20,000 registered users and we will make it available free online to the agricultural community later this year.
We will have a national farm safety conference with other players. We will have seminars and presentations to agricultural stakeholders, some of which are planned. We receive numerous requests from farming organisations to speak at meetings, and we will continue that role. We will also have awareness raising material including videos and posters at assembly points for farmers. As I mentioned, we also have a website. We will also continue to monitor and engage with European and international peer groups in identifying the best practices.
We believe that this programme will ensure continued high levels of awareness. The levels of awareness, we believe, are very high, based on European agency research. We want to keep it high but also we want to drive and encourage the behavioural change that will lead to improvements. Ireland can produce world class food on farms, but we want to see world class products produced on world class safety farms.
I can reassure the committee that the level of resources allocated by the Health and Safety Authority will continue to be maintained during 2015. I thank members for the attention. We will happy to deal with any questions.
It is very useful to have this debate today. It is good that the delegation acceded to the request by the Chairman to come before the committee at very short notice and discuss this very important issue. All of us know of people who have been killed in farm accidents and the major tragedy it is for the families involved. Many people are injured on farms, and some receive serious injuries.
There was a report that the number of inspections was to be reduced, which is a cause of concern. Mr. O'Halloran articulated the challenges facing the farming and agricultural industry very well. The person doing the work on a farm is normally a sole trader and today many more farmers work on their own compared to the past. Factories have fixed equipment and if there are potential risks one can do a lot to reduce them. Farms are, by their nature, full of mobile equipment which is taken in and out of fields and farmyards and is manoeuvred to different places.
It leads to a much higher risk factor which was very much highlighted in the 8:1 risk factor mentioned.
Today, we are here to work in collaboration to see is there some way that we can reduce the number of farm accidents and fatalities, an objective that we all have. Last year was a particularly bad year for farm fatalities. The first issue alluded to in the report is an obligation on all industries, including farming, to report serious accidents. It was also stated in the report that reporting of farms is much less for the obvious reason that if a farmer, the owner of the farm, has an accident one is unlikely to sue oneself and, therefore, the obligation or imperative to report an incident is not as high.
In the factory or office setting the vast majority of accidents happen to employees. In other words, not necessarily to the owner or employer. For all sorts of reasons, including insurance reasons, I imagine there is virtually 100% reporting of significant accidents in employer-employee relationships. As an employer I learned if there was anything, even quite a minor thing, to report when the health and safety person arrived he or she always made good suggestions. Is there anything that can be done to ensure people report accidents? Reporting a near miss, or an accident that did not have the serious consequence it could have had, could prevent a more serious accident happening.
The authority must carry out more inspections proactively because there is not as much reporting of non-fatal accidents. Does the authority need resources from its parent Department to carry out more inspections? More resources would mean the authority would be more proactive and would go to farms to ensure safe practices are in place.
Are there other mechanisms by which we could encourage farmers to prepare their safety statement, to think about safety and to self-audit or get somebody to audit what they do without an inspection? That would be helpful because the authority will never get to every farm.
As I have suggested in the past, could an arrangement be arrived at with the insurance companies, following informal discussions, that they will give a discount on insurance policies to farmers who carry out a safety audit and had a certified safety audit conducted by an appropriate person who was able to confirm it to the insurance company? Such a financial initiative would encourage people to have a safety statement and have somebody carry out an inspection. That would be preferable to the financial penalties spoken about because they exacerbate the problem. I do not favour financial penalties because a lot of the reason people do not invest in safety is that they do not have money. A penalty would take even more money away and would create a vicious circle. We must look at positive ways to encourage people to move forward. A small incentive would be a positive move and much preferable to exacerbating the problem by taking necessary grants away.
Has the authority analysed which type of farm has a high rate of accidents? Are more intensive farming methods more susceptible to accidents due to having more machinery in the farmyard? Is there a higher rate of accidents on more intensive farms rather than on less intensive farms? Insurance premia and investment are likely to be a lot more for more intensive farms and, therefore, it would pay them a lot more to have some type of audit in place. In contrast, a farm with very low intensity other than from livestock, which might have one tractor on it, would be a much lower risk. Has the authority got a statistical analysis that says the more equipment and machines on a farm, such as a slurry tank versus not having one, the higher the risk? In a lot of cases small farms contract out a lot of the machinery work. It would be important to have some measure of the matter.
Have we any idea what the compliance rate is for safety statements? I often have my doubts about safety statements. I would not like to ask my colleagues how many of them have read the safety statement as an employee in this place. I remember one day reading it because we had been given a big book which contained the statement. Cases where one must prepare a statement and one is involved work better. I am not sure how many employees read the safety statement. If an employer prepares one then he or she might get better engagement.
I noted the statistic of 17.9% of people fell from a height. I compliment the Minister on introducing the safety scheme last year. It was an innovative and positive idea. Unfortunately roofs were not included and replacing roofs that might be defective was not included. How many of the falls from a height were caused by a person falling through a roof? In other words, a person was doing something on a roof that was not up to standard and he or she fell off a ladder or through the roof because it was rusted or whatever. Should roofs be included in some new iteration of the scheme? I suggest it should include the replacement of defective roofs because almost 20% or one fifth of people fell from a height. Is a defective roof a significant cause of accidents on farms? The other causes are obvious - tractors, machinery, livestock, etc.
I thank Mr. O'Halloran for his presentation. Like Deputy Ó Cuív, we appreciate the delegation coming here today at short notice. The backdrop of the debate is a very bad year for fatalities, not least Lester Ryan's father only last week.
It was stated in the presentation that the authority has experienced a reduction in available resources. The number of staff has been reduced from 197 down to 152 and the budget has been reduced from €24 million down to €17.7 million. I cannot help but notice the fact that only 22 of the 152 staff have a full or partial involvement in agriculture and 13 are full-time equivalents focused solely on agriculture inspections. Given the number of agricultural holdings in the Twenty-six Counties one is talking of anything up to 150,000 farms but I am open to correction. If I am correct then it means there is one inspector per 7,000 farms. Is such staffing sustainable? Is a shortage of staff a contributing factor? To put an adequate safety programme in place one must first know the dangers which exist on some farms. How can we overcome the problem?
The change in machinery was mentioned in the presentation as playing a big part in safety on farms. As someone who grew up on a farm I am well aware of the changes and advancements in horsepower, size and number of machinery compared with what was on farms in the past.
Many of those who have lost their lives on farms are children. What percentage of those accidents is related to machinery compared with slurry, septic tanks and so on?
As farming advances and machinery becomes more powerful and prevalent, there will need to be a cultural change to a greater focus on the dangers posed by machinery. There were 30 fatalities last year. The rate of fatalities on farms compared with that in other industries is quite alarming. The Health and Safety Authority, HSA, talks about a similar situation in the Six Counties and is working on an all-Ireland basis. That is commendable because not only is safety central to its work, but it is focusing on the cultural aspect, to work together in harmony to reduce the fatalities. Much of its work is educational. That will change the culture in respect of safety, which is paramount. That is a big help. The farming organisations have a big and positive role to play in so far as the HSA has a collective approach to dealing with the ongoing problems. I take it that the research into, and monitoring of, international best practices on farm safety is part of the HSA’s farming conferences and so forth. I wish it the best of luck in its endeavours. The curtailment of resources makes its job much more difficult than it should be. If we can do anything to help in that regard, the witnesses should say so.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. I come from a farming and contracting background. Sometimes we have to look back to go forward. Farmers now farm by date and by the weather. After Christmas there are dates for spreading slurry. Everyone is under pressure to get the jobs done. We have to consider where we were compared with where we are now. When pressure is on and one is fighting the clock and looking after stock, things will go wrong. We need to consider what we have done in the past few years in setting dates for this and that, for spreading slurry or not. This and the weather put extra pressure on people, who try to bundle everything together.
Deputy Ó Cuív referred to reporting of accidents. I agree that a message needs to be sent out that we are here to work with the HSA. There is a genuine fear that if the HSA says something is wrong, it will go after the farmer who will have to pay penalties and be hassled. Penalties do not resolve anything. Working with people is the way to get the best possible outcome.
At one time in most parts of Ireland the cow was milked and the calf was reared and the next generation was a quieter animal. Six or seven years ago I had cows and I killed them because I was afraid for young kids. I reared cattle on a bucket to have another generation that is quieter. That is reality. The further we have gone to perfect the breed, which we have to do, the flightier the cattle are. There are dangers in the line of cattle. As people got busier over the past few years, animals became more used to a jeep or a tractor than to the person within it. There is less and less contact with the animals.
Deputy Ó Cuív’s idea of rewarding people with insurance is a good one but I do not want farmers to be threatened because the more that happens, the less will be reported. The age profile of farmers is older. We are trying to attract young farmers. We need them because while a 21 year old can jump up on the ditch if a bull runs after him, a 71 year old might not jump so quickly. We need to deal with these matters in a common sense fashion. I would like to hear the witnesses’ views on children on tractors and the seats that have been talked about. We need to work to bring down the figures but farming is a dangerous game in many ways and we have to try to get the best possible outcome for everyone.
I thank the gentlemen for coming in today to discuss a very important issue. All of us here want the same thing, a reduction in fatalities and serious accidents on farms. The rate is unacceptably high at the moment. My community was affected by this when we lost a neighbour a little over a year ago in a freak accident. The impact on a community is phenomenal, and goes beyond the family.
We need to improve the statistics. They are disproportionate to the 6% of the workforce that is farming. There are very few other workplaces that people live in with their families. The farmhouse is in the centre of the yard and the farm. The farmer never leaves the workplace. That is a serious consideration. There are many attractions for children in a farmyard. It is seen as an exciting place to play. As a young lad I fell off the hayshed, playing on the bales when I was warned never to play on them. I put out three discs in my back and cracked a couple of ribs. I was lucky not to be killed. We have to challenge the attractions of the farmyard.
Why do the witnesses think last year’s figures were so high? Are we going through a bad spell or is there a particular reason? What will the HSA do differently this year to have an impact on that?
From a policy perspective, do the witnesses have suggestions and recommendations for us? The €12 million the Minister allocated for farm safety is very important. I agree with previous speakers that more carrot and less stick is the way to go - education and training is the ultimate way. Putting money into making our farmyards safer is crucial. That was a very important investment last year and I look forward to something similar in the future.
I ask the witnesses to expand on the new regulations that are under discussion relating to children in tractors. What do they involve? Where do they come from?
I thank Mr. O'Halloran and his colleagues for outlining in very vivid detail the impact this is having. We are all acutely aware of the trauma and stress suffered by families who have lost a loved one in an agricultural accident and others who have sustained horrific injuries. As Deputy Heydon has said, in addition to the families, the whole community is devastated because very often these people are the backbone and bedrock of community activity and have contributed so much to developing communities.
Very often relatives come out and talk - brave people they are - and that is very important. We saw that with the recent "Late Late Show" appearance of Mr. Rohan who established Embrace FARM. I have a brother who has been a farmer for 44 years and is very experienced. When we hear relatives speak in the wake of a family tragedy, they often suggest that the victim was a very experienced farm operator and the person one would least expect to have an accident. That has to be taken into account.
We are dealing with a wide variety of causes of accidents from the involvement of equipment and implements. It involves power take off, PTO, balers, slurry agitation as well as loading and animal handling - in particular, animal handling after calving. Those are areas in which farmers are very experienced and yet something can happen. The last thing we need to do is to regulate farming activity out of existence.
In the course of a case in the 1950s, a judge said that to make accidents impossible would virtually require people to stop work. That is the starting premise. Even though we have the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Construction) Regulations 2006, and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Construction) Regulations 2007, we still have accidents happening. Even employers who follow every aspect can find one little thing left out.
I am all in favour of safety statements, but they need to be simple and we should avoid getting them bogged down in legalese, which is a disaster. It is not that farmers resist them, but the last thing we want is a plethora of legalese that would necessitate a farmer having a lawyer alongside to ensure that everything was being done right. Let us focus on the simplification of it.
It is vital to have more direct contact and interaction, and persuasion with a hand on the shoulder giving guidance and advice rather than mandatory regulations. That means wholescale involvement with stakeholders. We need to involve those people who have spoken out and who play a huge role in bringing focus to this. I believe a representative from the Health and Safety Authority was also involved in the recent television programme. I meet many farming people in Westmeath and they have been talking about it. People are focused on it, which is a huge help in that regard.
The farmyard is a challenging workplace environment. As Deputy Heydon said, in the 1960s and 1970s when we were growing up we pursued some activities that would be frowned on now. It was less challenging and a more relaxed environment. Deputy Fitzmaurice is right in saying that everything is now done at a particular time, including synchronised calving. Everything is now happening all together. When we grew up one could be calving over a three or four-month period. Now calving all takes place over a week. The Chairman knows more about sheep. It is now possible for a farmer to have 500 lambs born in couple of weeks. At one time that was scattered out more. There is pressure on people. Perhaps because of the economic situation there may be less help on the farm than heretofore. Sons and daughters go off and get an education which opens up avenues.
Accidents could have happened in the 1960s and 1970s that were not reported and lots of chances were taken. I took chances myself with farming activity from a very young age. When I look back at it now, I would say that the Health and Safety Authority would have grabbed me by the back of the neck and turfed me off the thing altogether. We have to look at where we are.
If the Health and Safety Authority starts into an enforcement regime, it will not work. Guidance, help and interaction are required with a huge focus on education. Every farmer under 35 has to get a green certificate and everything else. When I completed my agriculture diploma, as Mr. O'Halloran knows, there was a full module on farm mechanisation and equipment. In Multyfarnham Agricultural College we had to sit through hours of the theory and multiple hours in practice with PTOs, slurry agitation and working down in the dairy. We did that under Mr. David Jordan, who was an excellent teacher and I never forgot those lessons. Has the Health and Safety Authority made contact with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine to suggest that as part of getting that certificate a farmer would be required to do eight or ten hours theory with people from the Health and Safety Authority and then do the practice, even going out to some dairy farm?
No one size fits all. Different farming activities attract different levels of challenge. There are some very intensive dairy and pig farms and others being run by a single farmer on his own. It needs to be tailored to the activity that is taking place on the farm. As part of that certificate, there should be focus on a safety course. It would only require about five hours of theory and five hours of practice. That would be a good way to ensure that people who achieve certification would be taking on board a practical application. That certificate is very important in terms of capital gains tax and capital acquisitions tax when taking on a farm holding. It should focus on the fact that a person is taking on not only a farm, but this as well.
Practical application of solutions is more important to us at this stage. Everybody working together, including this committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Doyle, should be focused on ensuring that we minimise accidents. However, we must start with the premise that to make accidents impossible, we would have to call off all activity. Every one of us set out this morning in the car with the view that the last thing we wanted to happen was to have an accident. Then something happens for a moment and we have an accident or somebody else runs into us. That is an important starting point.
I wish to take up on Deputy Penrose's point. I know a gentleman in the farming community who lost his leg and subsequently approached the farming organisations and the HSA. He was willing to go to school. Sadly, he was rebuffed everywhere he went. Everyone was sending him to different places. As Deputy Penrose said, it is necessary to get someone who can talk in ordinary language when delivering a safety course. If someone goes in with highfalutin stuff, we will be going nowhere.
I ask Mr. O'Halloran to respond to those points. We would normally be focused on questions, but the committee is anxious to work with the witnesses. There is a depth of knowledge and experience here with suggestions that might help. That is why I am allowing members to expand somewhat beyond questions.
Mr. Martin O'Halloran:
Thank you, Chairman. There were some overlapping questions. I assure members that we will take all of their questions and observations on board and we will reflect on them and consider what changes in direction or finessing of direction we can develop based on today's meeting.
I will start with Deputy Ó Cuív's question relating to reporting. The level of accident reporting in agriculture is very low. That is a common characteristic across all European member states, and EUROSTAT has some compensatory methods. We agree with the Deputy's observation that an understanding of the near misses of the situations that could have given rise to very serious or fatal accidents helps general understanding. Teagasc has conducted research on that and we talk to a group in Manchester, THOR, which collects information on respiratory and other illnesses from the medical world. That gives us a limited level of data. We also get some data from the State Claims Agency and the Central Statistics Office, but we do not have a complete dataset. We try to get as much information as we can as we believe it helps in the understanding.
However, I wish to make an observation in that regard. We believe that through the discussion groups or the knowledge transfer groups, farmers are willing to share their experiences in what I might characterise a safe environment. It is an environment where a farmer might say to another farmer, for example, "I had a very close call on Monday". We envisage that this sharing of experiences through the knowledge transfer groups will help the culture shift.
The next item was the resources. Every State organisation has experienced resource diminution and ours is no different. Notwithstanding that, due to the priority we have allocated to agriculture we have 22 people involved in it, which amounts to 13 full-time equivalents. It is a high priority area for the authority.
As regards mechanisms the Deputy mentioned such as self audit, we welcome that. We believe it is essential. Like a number of the members, I grew up on a small farm and I am acquainted with the traditional concept of the meitheal whereby people helped out. The modern concept of the meitheal could be to do an exchange audit, where a farmer would conduct a small audit. To get technical, we believe cognitive dissonance sets in. We see the danger on everybody's farm but not on our own because we are on it every day. We believe in that approach and actively encourage it. We will continue to encourage it.
With regard to the insurance discount, we have engaged with the insurance industry in the past and asked it to consider it, but it advised us that its model is different. It is not the model it operates. However, based on today's discussion, we are happy to re-open that dialogue with the insurance industry and to ask it to reconsider. While that is not the model adopted by the insurance industry, the insurance industry in the farming sector has been supportive and works with the Health and Safety Authority and the partners. I must acknowledge that positive interaction.
As regards the analysis of farm type and intensity, as Deputies Fitzmaurice and Ó Cuív said, the machinery and the animals have got bigger. The animals have certainly become more flighty. Animal husbandry practices have changed. The days of feeding a calf from a bucket and walking the cows home are certainly in the historical annals of husbandry practices on farms. Yes, they are more accustomed to the jeep.
I will ask my colleagues, Brian Higgisson and Pat Griffin, to elaborate because there is a significant differentiation in the risk profiling within agricultural sub-sectors. Pat Griffin can give some context on that.
Mr. Pat Griffin:
There is a difference in the types of accidents that happen on different types of farms. I agree we cannot treat the sector as a homogenous group and have projects and approaches that apply to all farmers. We must recognise the differences. What distinguishes Ireland from any other country is that we have a 92% or higher livestock-grassland based agriculture. That has huge risks. Livestock are very unpredictable and there is the issue of working grass and saving grass.
The sector in agriculture that sticks out hugely is dairy farming. Teagasc conducted research some time ago which identified that 58% of fatal accidents happen in dairy farming, which is approximately 17% of the agriculture sector. That rings alarm bells for me, given that the quotas will be abolished on 1 April and many farmers are going into expansionary mode in dairy farming. With the number of replacement heifers and the increased output and intensity in farming, we are facing a difficult situation in trying to help these farmers to protect themselves. If one looks at a map of Ireland that shows the intensity of farming and a map that shows where the fatalities have occurred - we have plotted this - the intensity of farming matches exactly where the fatalities are occurring. That is how we have identified it.
The issues with the deaths are predominantly tractors and machinery. We will put huge focus on that. Over 50% of the deaths are occurring with tractors and machinery. Of the 30 deaths last year, 18 of them involved tractors and machinery. We have a focus on that and we will put our efforts into inspection and discussion groups and working with the farming sector to bring it along in a helpful way.
Mr. Brian Higgisson:
In reply to Deputy Ó Cuív about the compliance rate with safety statements, I will link my response to the issue Deputy Penrose raised regarding the complexity of the safety statement. The authority has put in place a code of practice which is a means whereby the farmer can prepare a safety statement. It was circulated to all farmers in 2008. The idea is that it makes it a step-by-step process to aid the farmers, rather than presenting them with a blank sheet and asking them to do it. That was one of the key initiatives taken. It is one of the key things we look at when we talk to the farmer as part of our inspection process, or any employer or person in a place of work. We ask if they have a safety statement. Our figures from last year, based on our inspections then, show that 65% of farmers had their safety statement or a code of practice available on their farm. That is the first aspect of it.
Second, we then asked them who prepared the safety statement. To refer back to Deputy Penrose's comment, if one can get farmers to engage in doing it themselves it is the best way to proceed. A total of 91% of the farmers have indicated to us that they do this themselves. That is a very positive outcome.
There are some concerns about it. The highest one is that part of the code of practice results in the generation of an action list for the farmer to improve safety on their farm, but only 52% of those we reviewed had the action list prepared. There was a great deal of work done, but it had not gone to the final stage of listing what work needed to be done. Where there was an action list, 60% of the actions had been done. Again, there is an issue here in that the work is started but it might not be completed. This ties into our approach where we are looking at knowledge transfer discussion groups, where farmers can possibly engage together on this process and exchange information with each other. Rather than be alone in trying to do this themselves, they could work together to bring it to completion. That is the position with the safety statement.
On the question about falls from heights, the vast majority of falls from heights on farms are associated with either maintenance or repair work at height, often externally such as with shed repairs. A key problem we have seen in recent years is translucent lights on the surface of a farm shed in terms of Perspex sheeting. When one is within the shed looking up it seems obvious where they are but as the shed weathers and ages, if one is on the roof they are not as noticeable and, unfortunately, people can step in the wrong location. The answer to the question is that the vast majority of them would be associated with either maintenance or repair work to sheds or other farm buildings.
Mr. Martin O'Halloran:
I will deal with Deputy Ferris's questions and make some observations. With regard to education, we are involved at primary level and run a number of initiatives. We helped develop a free online module for all primary schools. I have written to all 3,500 primary schools advising them that it is available free of charge online. It is linked to the social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum and it includes elements of farm safety.
In 2013 we ran a farm safety campaign with all schools through our collaboration with Kilkenny Education Centre. We ran an art and writing for children competition in the 21 education centres nationally. We had 10,500 children participating and from that we produced a booklet on farm safety, essentially authored by the children, entitled Only a Giant Can Lift a Bull. It was distributed to every school and library in the country and made available as a resource, so that continues.
At primary level we run a Be Safe campaign where we collaborate with other agencies on water safety, road safety and mountain safety. We bring that around to a number of schools each year, although obviously the number of schools we can bring it to is somewhat limited.
We have an intervention at second level through the transition year modules. Disappointingly, and this is an area we continue to seek to change, the leaving certificate syllabus on agriculture has not changed in 40 years. We are striving to have that changed to ensure it reflects, as Deputies Penrose and Ó Cuív identified, modern farming practices, the scale of machinery, the different animal husbandry practices and the different breeds of livestock. We have been corresponding with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and will continue to seek to have that curriculum revised to reflect the changing world.
We have a close working relationship with Teagasc. In terms of all the programmes it runs, and I understand it has trained more than 35,000 farmers in recent years, we believe the level of training and compliance by what I might call the younger more modern farmers is very high. However, the high-risk group of children and elderly farmers have not received that training.
For undergraduates doing agricultural science in University College Dublin there is a mandatory safety module. We have succeeded in getting very positive engagement with education in all sectors, and we see that as part of the mechanism to achieve cultural change.
With regard to research and monitoring best practice, that is done through a number of channels. My colleague, Pat Griffin, is a member of the European network - he is probably one of its leading people - and he has regular dialogue with counterparts in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark to exchange best practices. He has brought some of those people to speak at conferences here, so we do have international networks.
The resources question was raised also. Every state organisation has been through a difficult period, as have those in Ireland. We would all welcome resources but, notwithstanding that, our commitment is undiminished and we will continue to allocate a very high priority to resourcing.
As regards agricultural holdings, various estimates put the figure at approximately 130,000 holdings, but in practice the estimates we get is that there are probably 80,000 farmers whose primary source of income comes from farming activities. There are also a number of farming endeavours from which there is off-farm income as well. Those are the numbers at which we are looking.
The level of penetration, to use that term, we would achieve with inspections is fairly limited but in terms of the benefit, when an inspector goes in it becomes known in the farming community that he or she is in the area. It is that experience we are hoping to build on with the knowledge transfer groups so rather than have one farm safety visit interacting with one farm, there will be an interaction with a number of farms. That will facilitate the transfer of knowledge from an inspector. It will have what I call a theoretical dimension to it with a dialogue to allow people exchange their experiences.
We could not disagree with Deputy Fitzmaurice's observations. Many activities are high risk both in terms of large machinery, and obviously we cannot dictate to farmers, but there are many activities that would probably be better done by contractors. When there is big machinery involved, contractors, if they are doing the work professionally, will be able to commit better time to that.
We could not argue with the Deputy's observation about going back to go forward. Also, the observation about insurance is true. We also agree with the Deputy's observations on the age profile of farmers, but the high risk group is children and elderly farmers, and they are very disproportionately represented in those statistics. In 2014, the figure for children was five and the figure for farmers aged 65 or over was 12 or 13, so they are disproportionately represented.
With regard to getting people with credibility and authority to speak, we believe that is fundamentally important. That is why we have again asked a number of farmers to share their very difficult experiences at events we have run, and they have been generous and brave in giving of their time. At the ploughing championships last autumn, one farmer was willing to show his amputation, as have been a number of other people.
We also believe that one of the key successes of discussion groups and the knowledge transfer groups is that they are people who have authority in the eyes of their peer group relating their experiences. We have to be realistic. We are a regulator. While we have certain personal experiences, we have to recognise that the farming community will see us as a regulator. There is a perception that a regulator will say what a regulator will say. We recognise that, and that is why we strive to have people with a level of credibility and authority engaging with farmers.
Regarding Deputy Heydon's observations, it is devastating and we see the tragedy and the trauma. The experience from talking to farmers is that these experiences transcend generations. They are incredibly traumatic, and we recognise that.
In terms of why 2014 was such a bad year, it is very difficult to say, but the key observations were that the number of children and elderly farmers killed was incredibly high. If they were taken out, we are probably closer to the norms of other years, but I do not know that we have an easy answer to that particular question.
The question was raised about children on tractors. The first comment to make is that there is no change in regulation. Our philosophy always is to simplify.
We do not approach the community with, to use Deputy Penrose's expression, legalese because we are trained in it and we know that it is an immediate turn-off and negative in discussion. That is why the code of practice, to which my colleague, Mr. Higgisson, alluded, is written in accessible language. The BeSMART tool that we propose to launch later this year will be in accessible language. It is online and is step by step. At the end, it will help produce the farm safety statement.
As regards the specific question of why we are taking that view about children on tractors, I will ask Mr. Pat Griffin to respond.
Mr. Pat Griffin:
The dreadful situation where children are being killed on farms has been an issue we have been trying to tackle for many years. Fifteen years ago, we developed a code of practice for preventing accidents involving children and young persons on farms. Within that, we tried to set certain parameters for activity involving children on farms. One of the issues is one must be over 14 to drive a tractor on a farm. Another issue is that children under the age of seven should not be carried in the cab of tractors or other farm machinery.
At the time, the setting of that age bracket was linked to the physical development of a child. When a child is born, his or her skull is in seven pieces and then it knits and comes to full strength when the child is aged eight. It was recognised that a child being carried in the cab of a tractor, if he or she got a severe bang in the head, could suffer brain injury, and that is why the age of seven to prevent children from being carried in tractors was chosen.
A more modern reason for it now is that many of these tractors are touch-sensitive controlled and if one has a child aged under seven years in a tractor and he or she reaches out and operates any of these controls when, perhaps, his or her father gets down to go to the back or front of the tractor to do something, the child could cause a serious injury or death to the parent.
We came out at the end of 2014 with an announcement that we would try to be tougher on three issues. Those three issues were that we would consider on a case-by-case basis to go straight to prosecution of farmers who may have unguarded PTO shafts or who would leave slurry tanks open with a risk of persons falling in, and where farmers were carrying children under the age of seven in the tractor. The primary reason for the one involving a child is that we believe that if children are carried in tractors commonly, when the farmer goes down to the yard to do work and his mind is on the work, a child, at the first opportunity when he or she hears the tractor operating, will go down to the yard, and children are often reversed over or crushed. That is the reason we tried to bring in these stronger rules. We have no wish to make the work of the farmer more difficult. We would say that if farmers comply with those three basic issues where we really need to implement improved standards, they have nothing to fear from the inspector. We will help them and be co-operative.
On the question of why last year was so bad for farm deaths, there was a 40% increase in output in the agricultural sector in 2014. If there is a 40% increase in output, there certainly will be more work and greater intensity. There is more work going on and there is more risk.
A second issue is the fodder crisis. The fodder crisis was followed last year by probably the best year's growth of grass ever experienced. Farmers filled their silage pits to the hilt and then found that they still had grass to cut, and they cut bagged silage. The country is covered with mountains of bagged silage and quite a number of the deaths in 2014 occurred in handling such bagged silage or round bales.
A third issue in farm deaths is the lack of help on the farm. The best year ever for farm deaths, and still it was dreadful, was when there were 11 deaths in 2009. The reason for that was the economic collapse in Ireland where the construction sites closed down and many of the sons and daughters of farmers went back to the farm. In 2009, no person over the age of 65 was killed on the farm because there was help around. However, that was suddenly followed by another bad year where there were 25 deaths where these sons and daughters emigrated. It is quite a complex area to identify why the spike happened last year but I believe some of those issues are in that.
Mr. Martin O'Halloran:
If I might juxtapose the children on tractors and suggest that we would be tolerant of construction sites where construction workers might carry a child in a JCB or excavator, it gives one a sense of it.
To deal with Deputy Penrose's observations and questions, certainly it would not be our intention to regulate out of existence. We would wish to present any regulation in language which is as accessible as possible. We do not use the language of "reasonably practicable". We do not use terms such as, "on the one hand" and "on the other hand". We try to make it accessible and in the language that people can relate to.
We believe training is fundamentally important. Through the discussion and knowledge transfer groups, we believe that what we have proposed will give us direct contact in a constructive environment with in the region of 1,000 or more additional farmers. It is a means to achieve the higher level of contact.
I am very much aware that our guests have gone into the substantive elements that have been raised by my colleagues and I will not go into a lot of the detail. However, there are a couple of matters I wanted to raise. I echo the welcome from all of my colleagues and thank them for coming before us at such short notice.
It is on the record, although the witnesses did not say it, that while we are talking here about statistics, we are talking about real people. Nobody is unaware of that in our contributions but it should be stated. There is personal devastation caused to families from these death, the vast majority of which, as our guests state, were potentially preventable.
There is no significant reduction in fatality rates. One is eight times more likely to die working on a farm in Ireland than the general working population, which is a staggering statistic. There are two deaths per 100,000 workers but the rate is eight times higher in the farming sector.
I want to make reference to the GL Noble Denton research on agriculture, which the witnesses included in the documentation. The documentation raises one or two of the issues to which Deputy Fitzmaurice referred, for example that: "The influence on stress of perceived excessive paper work and regulation is notable." Perhaps we would not always think about such stress. The documentation also lists: "The stated influence of excessive fatigue, poor lighting and weather were greater than anticipated." The witnesses might have a view on that. It also states: "Research confirmed much of our current thinking and prevention programs [sic] as being appropriate but also indicates where some sharpening of messaging and focus are needed." Here is my question, which may seem a little naive. Prior to social media and the communications era in which we are involved, I can remember when growing up that one saw aluminium signs in various workplaces, farms, etc., listing do's and dont's. My understanding is that the statements on safety tend to be contained in books and filed.
Naive and all as it might seem, would the witnesses consider publicising key safety issues, for example, four or five dos and don'ts of farm safety, and putting them on an aluminium sheet in order that they could be posted up in the milking parlour or other central location on a farm? The message would be there for everyone to see. Farmers intend to work safely and it is reasonable to ask what occurs between the process of hazard identification and subsequent injury.
The research partly addresses the issue by saying that some of the answers lie in farmers having excessive self confidence, feelings of immunity to accident or injury, the fact they have never been caught before and risk taking becoming the norm. When one looks at the statistics for last year, reference has been made to the higher than average number of elderly farmers in their 70s and 80s, it seems to me to be a case of familiarity breeding contempt to some degree, although when one looks at the details of the accidents, as have been outlined, the random nature of some of them is awful to contemplate. It is often a case of the wrong place at the wrong time. The assumption is that the machinery is safe when it is not. That is why I promote the argument that rather than having elaborate safety measures and putting them in book form - which is good and I do not in any way say it should not continue - perhaps at a simple level one could consider listing three or four of the do's and don'ts because as the statistics indicate, the highest rate of fatalities relates to farm machinery. Therefore, if even that were to be addressed it might mean that the farmer when closing the farm door would see the sign asking whether he has switched off the engine or put the machinery in permanent safety mode. That would be a reminder not only to the farmer himself or herself but also to those associated with the farm.
My final point relates to the high statistics on fatalities last year, as outlined by Mr. Griffin. He is correct to conclude that expansion is expected on Irish farms in the future and that will present a particular challenge for farm safety generally due to increased stock numbers and work activity. The experts know what the challenges are and like my colleagues I wish them continued success in their important work.
I welcome the witnesses from the Health and Safety Authority. It would be remiss of us not to express our sympathy to the families of those who passed away last year. Last weekend in my constituency we had an unfortunate death in the Ryan family and prior to that in April 2014 a Mr. Byrne died in Bennekerry, County Carlow.
I have been involved in farming for many years. I was taught to drive on a little grey Massey Ferguson. My father put it in gear and I hopped up on it when he got off. That was very safe. Things have changed a lot in recent years. I will continue the point on which Senator Mooney concluded. The conclusion on page 20 of the report is that the Food Harvest 2020 targets will lead to more emphasis on production and on efficiency in terms of farmers trying to do things on their own, which means they are putting themselves under more pressure. That is a big issue.
I was interested in the statistic on the number of accidents on dairy farms in recent years. I was mistakenly of the view that dairy farms were among the safer places because of the considerable investment in recent years. It goes back to the fact that dairy farmers, like other farmers, are on their own. If a cow is calving at 3 a.m. a farmer will not be looking for half the country to give him a hand to get the cow in and do whatever he has to do with her. He will have to do it on his own and if he gets into a spot of bother he will have to try to sort it out himself. From the point of view of common sense, one could ask how one could deal with such a situation when it arises. In most cases, accidents have a freak nature. One of the individuals I mentioned was unfortunately killed by his son because he was blinded by the sun. He did not see his father coming into the yard. The sun blinded him and he hit him with the loader of the tractor, which unfortunately killed him. It is very difficult to legislate for something like that happening. Last weekend, in the case of the Ryan family, which I understand has one of the safest farms in the country, an issue arose. Again, it was a freak incident. The culture must change.
Education is key, and it must take place on the farm, as opposed to online education, which was mentioned. While online education might be useful the education must happen on site. If there is an incident in my yard or whoever else’s yard, one will see that clearly, as opposed to something online. Education is not as effective online as on site. Knowledge transfer is crucial. We have had various discussions about sheep, dairy and tillage farming. Farm safety should be a compulsory element of education. Generally speaking, farmers do not like inspectors calling. They would get more from a group session when they do it themselves and it would be more beneficial.
The Health and Safety Authority could consider changing in that regard and rather than having an inspection regime it could have more involvement with Teagasc and the agricultural colleges. As a former student of Kildalton, John McNamara, whom I am sure the witnesses know, was very involved there in farm safety at a time when farm safety was not as prominent an issue. It was a matter of getting in and out, doing what one had to do and moving on. In recent years agricultural colleges are bursting at the seams with more and more young farmers coming back, for example, from the building sector. Perhaps more of an emphasis could be made in the colleges, which again relates to education.
To return to a point made by Deputy Heydon on children, we all try to encourage our offspring to get involved in farming. Reference was made to the fact that a large proportion of farmers nationally are at the higher end of the age spectrum. Likewise, I am trying to encourage my children to get involved. When a young fellow wants to become actively involved on a farm one cannot say he must stay in and watch television. It is hard to say to a child that he should be careful.
In terms of children aged under seven and tractors, is a figure available on the number of children killed who were in a tractor as opposed to those who were running around the yard and got killed? I accept what was said about under sevens. Valid points were made about machinery nowadays and about high-tech electronics in tractors. Is there an argument to the effect that a child aged up to ten would be safer in a tractor where the farmer can keep a close eye on him or her, as opposed to the child running around the yard near animals or a slurry pit? I do not say a child would be safer but I am interested to hear what the statistics show.
There is obviously off-farm income involved and the mother in the household is more than likely out working as child care costs a good deal of money. Increasingly more children are being kept at home and the father who is farming is trying to be the child carer and do everything else. He is trying to incorporate everything together. To return to my initial point, with the increasing emphasis on meeting targets, he is trying to achieve all those targets and be the Jack of all trades. There needs to be more education around that end of it. The main emphasis must be on education.
What way do the authority's farm visits work? Its target is to carry out 2,300 farm visits this year. Does the authority inform the farmer beforehand? When its inspector visits the farm would the farmer be given a programme of work to do and a timescale to complete it? How does the authority select the farmers in terms of farm visits? Is it random or who supplies the list to the authority?
I thank the representatives for attending and for their presentation. Sadly, far too many lives have been lost in the past year. I join colleagues in offering my sympathy to all the people who have been affected by such loss. The representatives outlined the authority's programme for the coming year. I agree with other speakers that the knowledge transfer and the discussion groups are important. Many farmers are involved in discussion groups and they come together and share information among themselves, which perhaps is much easier to do than an inspector coming in and doing that. With regard to inspectors, the carrot - rather than stick - approach would be best. When an inspector visits a farm yard, and I know that the authority's officials do this, the first thing they would do is to offer advice to the farmer, but if there is a subsequent visit and jobs required are not being done, the stick approach could be used at that stage. It is important to encourage farmers to get involved.
I am aware that the authority does a good deal of work in the schools and that should be continued. That is a great way of raising awareness. If children learn something relevant to what is happening at home or on the farm in school, they will talk to their parents and other farmers about it. We see the great work that has been done in educating children about the environment, recycling and so on, which encourages children to get involved at a very young age.
It is important to make the safety statement simple. The grant scheme was touched on. I have said previously that the ceiling of the grant scheme at €2,000 is too high and that the grant should kick in when a farmer has spent €1,000. Sometimes simple jobs will make a farm much safer. In my own case I got a galvanised cover for slats which were being replaced by heavy concrete slats and it only cost around €400. That made a great difference. Falls from roofs are another problem. There is a provision in the safety grant where a mesh could be installed under the Perspex or skylight sheeting on the roof. Those are my points and I note that many other issues have already been covered.
I welcome the representatives from the Health and Safety Authority. All the specific questions have been covered but I wish to make a few comments. Johnny Ryan was a close neighbour of mine and lived only a little over a mile from me and I knew him very well. I extend my sympathy to the Ryan family and to all families who have lost a family member as a result of a farm accident during the past year. Johnny was a model farmer. Nobody goes out in the morning thinking they will have an accident or that they will crash their car. That was a freak accident, as are the majority of farm accidents.
We all know what is supposed to be the oldest profession but I believe farming is the oldest profession where people have had to provide food for themselves. It has been practised here and all over the world for thousands upon thousands of years. Farmers are fearful of inspections. They have inspections for single farm payments, from Bord Bia, from county councils and from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, for the agri-environmental options scheme, AEOS, and they can also have inspections from the Health and Safety Authority. A headline on the "AgriLand" news portal states: "Up to €5,000 fine for carrying a children in tractors (HSA says no more excuses)". That will not do the authority's story any good. It will frighten farmers and build hostility among them with regard to a visit from a health and safety inspector. It is all about co-operation. Everybody has hit on that point. The main aspects to this are awareness, education, training and advice. That is the only way to address this problem. It is not one that can be solved because there will always be freak accidents, but it can be addressed though Teagasc, the farm organisations and an advertising campaign. Unfortunately last year was also a bad year for road fatalities. However, the Road Safety Authority has had good success with its advertising campaigns in tackling the problem of drink driving. I know that funding is a problem for the Health and Safety Authority. If we have to, we need to be lobbied to contact the Ministers for the Environment, Community and Local Government, the Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Agriculture, Food and the Marine to secure funding if the authority is to run a proper advertising campaign.
The largest number of accidents occur in the construction industry and on farms and we have been given the statistics on that. The construction industry has been depressed because there has not been much construction work here in recent years. As Mr. O'Halloran said, one would not bring a child on to a building site, but farms are not building sites. Farms are where people live, where people make a living and children will be around. I wish to make a few points about the banning of seven year olds from travelling in tractors. Many of the modern tractors are very safe because they have seats and seat belts. If a child hears a tractor being driven, they will run out into the yard but parents also have a responsibility to ensure farm safety. As Deputy Deering mentioned, in many farm households, the farmer's wife is out working as child care costs a good deal of money. If grandparents are not around, the farmer has to take responsibility sometimes for the child during the day. He cannot sit inside to do his work, he has to go out into the yard. If the child is not in school, where is he or she to stay? A farmer may have to bring the child on the tractor. I believe a child is safer on a tractor. I do not want to go into individual cases but I note from pages 38 to 41, inclusive, of this document that it is stated that so many under the age of five were killed, but none of those was killed on a tractor; they were killed by tractors when they were in the yard or by an implement in a yard. It would be safer in that respect if a child were on a tractor.
Mr. Griffin said that dairy farms are the most dangerous. I was amazed about that because I thought the more intensive farms would have better cattle-handling facilities and perhaps better machinery. It is important to develop co-operation with the farmers and not to frighten them because if one scares them, they will not co-operate. Finances are an issue in this respect. Many farmers are struggling to make a living, especially beef farmers and smaller farmers. They cannot afford to do some jobs. They have to educate and feed their family and they may leave something that needs to be fixed in the yard on the long finger. The grants paid by the Department must be reviewed because the Minister has to reduce the threshold in terms of what people can apply for in order that the small jobs can be done. The small things are what can catch one out. It is all about training, education, awareness and co-operation. Unfortunately, farmers are sole traders. They work on their own and it is a lonely life for many of them. The idea of inspections frightens farmers. If we can ensure there is even one death less, it would be great. We will not be able to prevent every farm accident. We need to make sure that people are always aware of the dangers on farms and that could be done through advertising in the schools. It is great to see the co-operation in schools, including in the schools in Kilkenny, and that should continue at second level also. I ask the representatives not to frighten the farmers or to pose the threat of a prosecution because they will not co-operate then. They have enough inspections.
I wish to make an interesting observation on an area that has been covered by previous speakers. I am not sure if the representatives would have a view on it and I appreciate their authority is not the competent authority in this area. There are people who have had a full, clean licence for 15 years who at the time of the change in the rules applying to the licence inadvertently did not get a licence that legally allows them to pull a trailer on the road and yet 16 year olds have a licence that entitles them to drive huge vehicles carrying silage on the road. That is irresponsible. My children would probably have given out to me when they were that age for saying that, but I do not understand how with the acquisition of a simple tractor licence, a 16 year old can be left responsible for a vehicle pulling 12 or 14 tonnes of silage or grain behind it.
On the other hand, an experienced driver with no blemish on his or her career who would have been driving a vehicle on the road with a car trailer is no longer supposed to do this because of the changes in the system. I acknowledge there was an amnesty for those holding pre-1989 licences, but persons with licences issued between 1989 and 1999 who now have up to 16 years experience are excluded. The Health and Safety Authority might work with the Road Safety Authority to bring about a practical solution to both anomalies.
Mr. Martin O'Halloran:
I thank the Chairman and Senator Paschal Mooney again for their observations. We should have predicated all of our points - it is in our submission - but once again it is of critical importance to recognise the devastating impact on families and communities. We cannot state this often enough because the HSA and the inspectors can see the impact it has and, as I stated, it stays in the memory of families for generations. I will come back to the GL Noble Denton research, but in terms of sharpening the message, we will certainly take on board the observation made by Senator Paschal Mooney and ascertain whether there is a mechanism whereby it could be developed in a way that could be used. That is why we suggested publicising "five do's and do not's" and having them in some form of hardware on farms. We will talk to the other partners in the farm safety partnership about the subject. Mr. Pat Griffin is the senior inspector who, together with our occupational psychologist, oversaw the GL Noble Denton research. I will ask him to touch on some of the messages on the stress, the paperwork, the fatigue and some of the key findings involved in this regard.
Mr. Pat Griffin:
We undertook the GL Noble Denton research to try to identify areas in which we could improve farm safety and change behaviour. Senator Paschal Mooney absolutely hit a particular point, in that the research indicated that we needed to sharpen the message to farmers. While much of the print media and commentary appeal to farmers to work safely, that certainly does not mean much to farmers because everyone wants to work safely. Consequently, one must sharpen the message and become involved more critically in the critical messages. An example of this arose from our reaction to the slurry handling issue, when three dreadful deaths took place within the Spence family in Northern Ireland. There have also been a number of deaths here in slurry handling. In this regard, we certainly tried to sharpen the message on how slurry should be handled. We designed a safety sign that set out simple steps on how to mix slurry safely. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has now agreed to make this safety sign mandatory for placing above agitation points in any new building the Department will grant aid.
Another notable issue to emerge from the GL Noble Denton research was stress and the pressure of paperwork. Obviously, we have covered the point that we are trying to make both safety statements and compliance with legal safety requirements more simple for farmers. We have produced a code of practice which is a checklist form of safety statement. We have also made it available online to make it easier for some younger farmers to comply with it. We have also identified that fatigue is a major issue. Many farmers spend 12 to 14 hours a day working and fatigue is a major issue.
One point that I wish to bring to the attention of the joint committee is that when we conducted this research and tried to examine fatal accident rates across Europe, we were unable to find good statistics for deaths of farmers. We could find figures for approximately 12 member states up to 2007 or 2008, which indicated that approximately 550 farmers were dying in the agriculture sector in the European Union each year. However, if one were to include the new member states and the 28 member states in total, I estimate that 1,000 farmers are being killed each year in producing food for Europe. Certainly, we will try to spread the findings of the research we have undertaken on these issues with our colleagues in Europe to try to deal with this major issue. Our research certainly identified that education, as well as training and working with farmers, was absolutely the way to go.
Deputy Martin Heydon asked what we would do differently this year to try to deal with what happened last year. What we are doing differently is getting involved with discussion groups. We will cover 50 discussion groups and work with farmers to try to improve what they do on farms in order that farmer-to-farmer education and knowledge transfer on safety will actually happen. The research we have undertaken has pointed the way towards what changes are necessary in our programmes of work to change from inspection to broaden it into discussion groups and other preventive methods that we have listed in our submission to the joint committee.
Mr. Martin O'Halloran:
Moving on to Deputy Pat Deering's questions, we certainly agree and our entire thrust is culture change. We want to continue education on the farm. Perhaps I did not clarify this, but the online training programme is primarily a resource for teachers in primary schools. However, we believe the on-farm education programme will be empowered and enabled through the discussion groups because they will be farm-centric. Consequently, we certainly take on board the Deputy's point and do not disagree with his observations.
As regards farm visits, I will ask my colleague, Mr. Higgisson, to outline the process involved, how farms are selected and, when an inspector calls and leaves, the nature of that interaction.
Mr. Brian Higgisson:
To respond to Deputy Pat Deering, in the first instance, our inspection campaign is a national one. Therefore, the inspectors involved are situated around the country. It is a random programme, in that we do not have a list of farmers or anything presented to us. Inspectors are given the freedom to make inspections in the areas most relevant to them and that may be identified or highlighted as being of higher risk by being black spots in the presentation made to the joint committee. Farmers are not pre-notified or pre-warned about inspections and as a result, the inspector arrives on the farm unannounced. Our inspectors have a very high understanding and knowledge of the agriculture sector and are aware that there could be constraints at the time of the visit that may make an inspection difficult and on which they will engage with the farmer. We will also carry out the inspection with the farmer. In other words, the inspector will not visit the farm on his or her own. This is all about engaging with the farmer and taking the opportunity to look at the issues on the farm, give advice and guidance on what the risks are and the actions that may be taken or may need to be taken.
If one examines the outcomes of farm inspections, more than 90% actually involve advice, whether it be verbal or written. Approximately 10% are enforcement actions, by which I am referring to a prohibition notice; in other words, a certain activity must be stopped such as the use of an unguarded power take-off, PTO, shaft. Another measure is an improvement notice, a notice that requires a certain action to be taken within a certain time such as the guarding of an unguarded slurry pit. However, the vast majority of our engagements and outcomes involve agreement and getting the farmer to agree that the works must be undertaken. Where there is such a requirement with written advice, a timeline may be and is often given. In these circumstances, we ask the farmer to write back to the inspector who would expect to receive a written response when the remedial action had been taken. It is important to identify that there are a number of outcomes from the inspection. One obviously is that the HSE wishes to improve the standards on the farm, which is important. We wish to increase the awareness and understanding of the farmer.
We know that when we are inspecting farms in a region, it has a broader impact. Farmers speak to their neighbours and tell them there is an inspector in the area. This enables them to focus on their own farms even though the inspector may not call to them. It also gives us very important information on the standards of safety on farms. This is one of the key things we also need to know. We need to know the hazards and how they are being addressed and controlled.
We try to get feedback on the farm inspection process. In all of our inspection processes, we try to get the inspected entity, farmer or individual to give us feedback through an anonymous survey. We do not get a huge response from the agricultural sector but we get some responses and the vast majority of these are positive in terms of the experience of the farm inspection.
Mr. Martin O'Halloran:
I thank Senator Comiskey and other members of the committee for recognising and welcoming the value of knowledge transfer groups because this is one of the strategic differences in the direction in which we are going.
On the grant scheme, we do not influence this but we will bring the observations made to the attention of the officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine who may be able to influence any future schemes.
Mr. Higgisson dealt with the issue of feedback and the information we get from this. Fear of an inspection is not something we wish to see. Over recent years, the manner of our direction has been very positive, supportive and advisory. We want it to be a collaborative approach and we will continue with this as a specific objective.
I also wish to recognise the observation of the Chairman and note that we share his concerns about young drivers who are relatively inexperienced being in control of a very large load. The entitlement of young drivers on farms to drive on-farm without any age restrictions and on-road is a concern for us. We are engaging in discussions with our colleagues in the Road Safety Authority on this. Just this week, I had discussions with Moyagh Murdoch, my counterpart in the Road Safety Authority, on how we might reflect our concerns about these types of issues.
Mr. Pat Griffin:
No child has been killed in a tractor. In terms of seven year olds on a farm, the choice can never be whether to leave them in the tractor or in the yard. We have looked, sadly, at a number of child fatalities on farms. In the vast majority of them, the child was in the yard and was either reversed over or hit by a machine. Our sense of it is that children are commonly getting spins in a tractor, which is hugely exciting for a very young child. I have witnessed this myself. Children of a very young age will come down to the yard unsupervised and without the knowledge of the parent. The parent is driving the tractor and suddenly the child is in the yard. The mother can come home from town with her very young children and, while she is doing something, a child hears the tractor and disappears down into the yard very quickly. For a child, the sound of a tractor, after the excitement of getting spins on one, is like honey to a bee. The child will go down to it. This is something about which we are hugely concerned. We must recognise that children of that age do not have sense. They must be supervised. Given the number of children who have been killed on farms, we have to deal with the issue of carrying children in the cabs of tractors. It is a very difficult rule to make and to set it out in black and white. However, we are trying to prevent situations in which children get excited by tractors, run down to the yard and get crushed.
I know Mr. Griffin and members have the best interests of everyone in their hearts on this matter, but a headline such as this will not do. The big stick approach of a €5,000 fine for carrying a child on a tractor will not work. This is about awareness. I know that children can be excited about tractors and rush out to see Daddy and that accidents do happen. However, parents have responsibility as well. The mother is in the home and the father is in the yard. The father is on the tractor. He has to be aware that the wife is coming home at whatever time. We cannot come along and suddenly draw a line and say a person will be fined €5,000 if he or she has a child who is under seven years of age on a tractor. This will not work. Who is going to enforce it? Will gardaí enforce it? Will the Health and Safety Authority inspector arrive in a person's yard and enforce it? There are not enough people to enforce it. This is about education, getting people to co-operate and making people aware of the dangers. The other aspect of this concerns grants. A farmyard should be fenced off properly in order that a child cannot gain access to it without parental supervision. This is a better approach than fining someone €5,000 for having a child under seven years of age on a tractor. This will not happen.
Anyone who has children knows that if a person is over in the shed, children, at four or five years of age, can come along the road and sneak away. There is no point in saying they cannot. It will create more accidents if children are not allowed to be on the tractor. A person might be in a shed believing the child is not coming over, but the child will sneak over. When writing to Santy at two or three years of age, the first thing a child on a farm wants is a tractor. They will sneak over and back the road. If the person brought the child with them and put the child in the tractor, at least they would know where the child was. The authority needs to rethink this.
In tractors nowadays, there are seats and seat belts. Given the suspension in tractors nowadays, they are easier to travel in than cars. The authority needs to look at this again. I fear the road the authority is going down will cause more accidents. Children will sneak up on tractors. There is no point in saying they will not. They are youngsters. It is like a hurler in Kilkenny who has a hurley in the hand at four years of age to be good at it. The authority needs to re-examine this.
We will leave it at that. The authority, in its presentation, stated: "Bringing about such a change cannot be achieved by a single entity or a single approach." This is probably the nub of the matter. The Health and Safety Authority is a very important cog in the machinery when trying to ensure farm accidents are eliminated, which they probably never will be, or reduced to a number approaching the average across various sectors. The committee needs to identify the main themes. I have picked up on a real warning sign here. Some 58% of the accidents are happening on dairy farms which account for 17% of farms.
The proportion of dairy farmers working full-time is higher than in other areas of farming. As such, most of them do not need to rush back to their farms after work. This area requires great focus in view of objections to Food Harvest 2020, but other areas should not be neglected.
The issue of grants was identified. The joint committee will identify a list and make representations to the relevant Minister. It is interesting that 6,000 people have applied for funding under the safety measures in the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS. The joint committee wrote to the Minister to include this measure in the scheme. The figure of 6,000 equates to approximately 5% of all farmers and it should be borne in mind that the application window has been short. This indicates a high level of interest in the scheme. The number of applications would increase significantly if the threshold were lowered.
Everybody agrees that the discussion groups are important. They have generated considerable interest from farmers, members of the public and the media. I stated at all times that the purpose of inviting the Health and Safety Authority before the joint committee was to have its representatives explain the rationale for the reduced number of farm visits in order that we could understand the HSA's position. We were worried about the number of farm visits.
I was a member of this committee during the previous Dáil when members stated a preference for describing farm inspections as farm visits. Mr. Halloran indicated at the time that the Health and Safety Authority was endeavouring to do this. The number of farm inspections or visits appears to be declining. If the HSA policy was to access all areas through the discussion groups, we would have made that recommendation. The discussion groups are key to this issue. No one should fear having health and safety training made a mandatory part of training to become a qualified farmer.
Senator Mooney's practical proposal on the erection of signs listing health and safety requirements is a good one. Such signs would serve as a reminder as they would be in people's faces all the time. Warnings on social media or in a book are not in anybody's face. Road traffic signs, warning signs and health and safety signs can be found everywhere. I thank Senator Mooney for his sensible and easy proposal for enhancing safety awareness, which is a key issue. As people become busier, they forget to take their time and sometimes get into a panic.
I am aware of an unfortunate case involving a child who was responsible for a parent having an accident by virtue of being left in a cab. There are pros and cons to introducing a straightforward fine, although in my view this is not the best approach. A pragmatic approach needs to be taken to this issue. When my young nieces and nephews visit, they want to drive up and down the driveway on a tractor. They are allowed to do this but are then told that is the end of the matter. This is part of the thrill of visiting a farm.
No single entity, agency or approach can overcome this problem. We need to raise awareness. Nine or ten of the 30 people who died on farms last year were aged over 70 years. Mr. Griffin's comments on the cases that occurred in 2009 provided an interesting insight into the profiles of those who died.
I thank all members for their input. Health and safety on farms is close to our hearts. When we circulated information on the issue, members expressed eagerness to invite representatives of the Health and Safety Authority to appear before us. I appreciate the decision of the witnesses to appear at less than one week's notice.