Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Farm Safety: Discussion

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Vice Chairman, the Chairman, Deputy Cahill, and members of the committee for inviting me this evening to speak on the important topic of farm safety. I am joined this evening by officials from my Department, Mr. Michael Moloney, senior inspector and head of crop policy, evaluation and certification division with responsibility for farm safety, and Dr. Robert Leonard, agricultural inspector on farm safety.

Farm safety is an important area in the programme for Government and this was evidenced by my appointment as the first ever Minister of State with specific responsibility for it. I am determined to use this role to drive a change in culture on our farms, one that puts safety first in everything that we do. The day-to-day responsibility for safety on farms falls to the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. While the HSA has primary responsibility, my Department and I are fully supportive of its work and assist in the promotion of safe farming practices. I have introduced initiatives of our own to complement the work of the HSA, which I will detail further shortly.

Between 2016 and 2020 there were 100 fatal incidents on Irish farms. This is a stark reminder of the dangers on farms. Of these 46 involved a farm vehicle, seven involved machinery and 20 involved livestock. The age profile of those involved in farm incidents is also a serious concern, with the old and the very young accounting for 65% of fatal incidents on farms.

Of 54 workplace deaths in Ireland in 2020, 20 were on farms, which is hugely disproportionate to the share of the workforce of our country, with just 7.1% of people employed in the sector in 2019. Unfortunately, to date this year there have been seven fatal incidents on farms. Every death is one too many. Behind each of these numbers is a family, a farm and a local community that has suffered an irreversible loss.

I understand the committee has invited Embrace FARM to attend and discuss farm safety with it later this evening. I fully endorse the valuable work and support that the organisation provides to farm families at a very difficult time in their lives. I attended the annual ecumenical service hosted by Embrace FARM earlier this year. It was a sobering experience to meet with farm families and members of that organisation and to hear their personal experiences.

It is important that we continue to drive efforts to put farm health, safety and well-being at the centre of all we do. It is only through continuous attention to the risks that are present on farms that the rate of fatal and serious incidents will be reduced in a sustained manner.

I have been involved in supporting a range of initiatives in the areas of farm safety, health and well-being to help drive this cultural change. I launched a dedicated European Innovation Partnership, EIP, call for farm safety projects in December 2020, with an initial closing date for projects of 29 January 2021. The EIP ran in a two-stage process, with my Department receiving 30 project proposals in the first stage. Of these, 12 projects went through to the second stage. At the end of the second stage eight projects with a total value of €1.8 million were approved and are proceeding to implementation. Such was the level of interest that we increased the funding from €1 million to €1.8 million to ensure all successful projects could be funded.

These projects cover not just farm safety, but also farmer health and well-being and vulnerable people on farms. The projects address a broad range of issues in relation to farm health, safety and well-being, including supports for people who have been affected by serious and fatal farm incidents. They are generating ideas from the ground up. As we are all aware, there are many people in our communities doing great work in this area. These projects are a chance to scale up that work. We can roll out the most successful projects across a wider area, using what we learned initially.

At the beginning of October this year, I launched an accelerated capital allowance scheme for farmers wishing to modify farm vehicles or farm equipment for an operator with a disability. The scheme also covers certain qualifying farm safety equipment to help prevent farm accidents. The scheme is being operated in conjunction with the Revenue Commissioners and will help enable farmers who have suffered life changing injuries to continue farming. I am determined that while we work to make our farms safer places, these farmers are not left behind. The scheme has an annual budget of €5 million, excluding VAT.

Further to this, my Department, in conjunction with the Department of Health and the HSE, co-funded the On Feírm Ground programme, which I launched with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, last year. This project is providing training for agricultural advisers to engage with and signpost farmers to supports in relation to health and well-being. The training of farm advisers began last month and is ongoing. It is important that advisers are alert to the warning signs that farmers may be facing difficulties and know how to advise farmers on where they can get help. Our farm advisers do tremendous work. They are in a very important position in a farmer's life. They are often those who have the most regular contact with farmers and they are trusted by them too, so it is key they know how to support farmers when they are displaying signs of distress.

In relation to on farm infrastructure my Department’s targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS II, has more than 50 dedicated farm safety investments, in addition to all of the animal housing and other machinery that provide significant safety benefits. As part of the TAMS II, it is a requirement that all applicants complete a half day farm safety training course before submitting a claim. This has resulted in more than 19,000 farmers undertaking the required farm safety training.

Additionally, my Department is an active member of the farm safety partnership advisory committee, FSPAC. This committee is a sub-committee of the board of the Health and Safety Authority, and is chaired by a board member of the HSA. Currently, that chair is Mr. Ciaran Roche. It brings together all those who work in the area of farm safety to ensure all our efforts are joined up. The committee has five working groups focusing on different priority areas around farm health, safety and well-being. Officials from my Department sit on each working group.

My Department, in conjunction with the HSA, ran a combined television and radio campaign on farm safety in 2020 and 2021. The campaign focused on reminding farmers not to be complacent around machinery. Further to this, my Department is rolling out farm safety training to both farmers, as part of the agri-environmental and farm safety training package announced in budget 2021, and to farm advisers as part of their continuing professional development, CPD, training.

A farm safety leaflet is included with the annual basic payment scheme application packs, distributed annually to more than 130,000 farmers. All of these various means of reaching farmers, whether it be leaflets, training or media campaigns, help to keep our safety first message front and centre. We are using every available means to reach as many farmers as possible.

In budget 2022 a dedicated allocation of €2 million has been provided for farm safety. This will allow us to continue our work on farm safety, health and well-being. It is the first time the Department has ever had a dedicated budget for farm safety and it will be an important tool.

My Department is also continuing to develop the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and I am working to ensure farm safety has a central role in that when it begins in 2023.

I am determined to reduce the rate of serious and fatal incidents in the agricultural sector. I am open to looking at all options that may assist in encouraging farmers, and all those living and working in agriculture, to work in a safe manner and to manage the risks that are present in agriculture. Just because there are risks, it does not mean that farms should be dangerous places to work.

I thank you, Vice Chairman, and your colleagues for your invitation today. I look forward to answering any questions or any points that members may wish to raise.

I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive opening statement. There is significant interest among members. We already have seven if not eight members indicating. I call on Senator Paul Daly.