Farmers in Yorkshire are risking severe financial repercussions, and even jail, because they are unaware of tougher penalties for health and safety breaches, an agricultural insurer has warned.
Gerard Salvin, of Yorkshire-based farm insurance specialist Lycetts, is worried there is a lack of knowledge among the farming community around The Health and Safety Sentencing Guidelines, in particular that fines are now based on a business’ turnover.
Since February last year, farming companies with a turnover of up to £2m who are found to have breached the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 can expect to be hit with fines of up to £450,000.
Larger businesses with turnovers in excess of £50m can face fines of up to £10m, while individuals found guilty of breaching the law can be handed unlimited fines or face a two-year prison sentence.
Judges could previously only impose custodial sentences in very specific circumstances, with fines in the lower courts limited to £20,000.
Mr Salvin said: “Health and safety breaches can have very serious, and even fatal, consequences and it is only right that they are dealt with appropriately. Anything to improve health and safety in one of the most dangerous industries is certainly welcomed and supported.
“But our feedback from farmers suggests many may not fully comprehend how business-critical a breach can be. It is no longer a slap on a wrist and a fine amounting to hundreds of pounds. Farmers who are lax with their health and safety procedures can expect to feel the full force of the law.
“Now a number of factors are taken into account when deciding punishment, including the level of culpability, the risk of causing harm and the level of potential harm, and the turnover of the offending business.
“These guidelines are meant to act as a deterrent – and farmers should be aware that lapses in judgement, or a failure to take a proactive approach to safety, could cripple their operations.”
According to recently released Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures, agriculture has the worst rate of worker fatal injury of any industry in the country, equating to 7.61 per 100,000 people, 18 times higher than the all-industry rate. In 2016/17, 30 people were killed in agriculture.
In Yorkshire, there have been three deaths in the past year. Between April 2016 and March this year, a 79-year-old farmer was killed when he was crushed and trapped in the gap between a seed drill and tractor, a 47-year-old gamekeeper was killed when his quad bike overturned at night during rabbit shooting and an 80-year-old farm employee was struck and run over in the farm yard by a telehandler moving bales.
The main causes of death were being struck by vehicles (30 per cent), being trapped by something collapsing (20 per cent), being struck by an object (17 per cent), coming into contact with electricity (10 per cent) and falling from height and injury by an animal (both seven per cent).
Whilst 27 of the past year’s deaths involved farm workers, three were members of the public.
Although not all fatalities on farms are a result of health and safety breaches, Mr Salvin said these figures highlight how risky an industry it is.
In Yorkshire, a farm contractor was sentenced to 80 hours of community service and ordered to pay £6558.38 in costs after a retired farmer he was working for was killed by barbed wire that shot out of a hedge cutting machine.
The contractor had failed to ensure his own safety and that of others by following a safe system of work. His maintenance of the equipment and correct use of guards for this work activity were also at fault. He pleaded guilty to the safety breaches.
In another incident, a farm worker was sentenced to 16 months and two weeks in prison after running over and killing a young boy with his tractor. The man, who pleaded guilty to safety breaches, was over the drink drive limit.
Mr Salvin said: “These cases and the significantly higher fines serve to illustrate how seriously courts are taking health and safety breaches on farms and highlight what farmers can expect if they cut corners or take shortcuts.
“People’s lives are being put at risk on a daily basis on farms and an accident can have a devastating effect on the victim and their family. Farmers need to prioritise compliance with the health and safety regulations and make sure they are doing all they can do to protect their workers or face the consequences.”
Health and Safety Executive figures show that four percent of workers in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector sustained a workplace injury in 2015/16.
By 2017, it estimated that the economic cost to society of injuries sustained in the sector stands at £162m.
Discussing farm safety in the autumn, the vice president of the National Farmers’ Union, Guy Smith, said: “I don’t believe that farming is inherently dangerous, yet every day we farmers place ourselves in situations of unnecessary risk.
“We need to adjust this culture as a matter of urgency.”
Agricultural businesses can find the latest advice on measures to ensure farm safety via the HSE website, see www.hse.gov.uk/agriculture