Farming Fatalities - how do they happen, how can they be prevented, and the legal position

A recent spate of incidents and the release of HSE annual statistics has affirmed the continuing problem of farm safety in the agriculture industry.

  • In December 2016, Mr. Nathan Walker (19) drowned after falling into a slurry tanker. Mr. Gavin Rawson (35) attempted to save Mr Walker,  but was unsuccessful, and also lost his life in the attempt. [1]
  • In March 2017 Mr John Mills (67) was killed falling 14ft from a fragile roof whilst cutting roof panels.[2]
  • In June 2017, Mr. Derek Mead (70) was killed after being crushed by a tractor after a dog entered the cab and set the vehicle in motion.[3]

These individual incidents are reflected in HSE statistics that confirm farming to be one of the UK's most dangerous industries:

  • In 2013/14 the industry accounted for nearly 20% of deaths in the workplace;[4]
  • In 2014/15 the industry accounted for nearly 24% of deaths in the workplace;[5] and
  • In 2015/16 the industry accounted for nearly 19% of deaths in the workplace[6].

Provisional 2016/17 figures show a similar rate of around 20%[7]. This rate of ~20% is not just worryingly high, it also doesn't appear to be decreasing.

It is worth nothing that these figures do not take account of work related illness - i.e. asbestos related cancers or noise induced deafness.

Causes of Injury

A breakdown of the causes of death show that it is often the most common, every day, activities that are the cause of fatalities:

  • The most common cause of death on a farm is a fall from height - a fall of 2 metres or more can often result in serious or even fatal injury;
  • Contact with moving machinery or being struck by moving vehicles are similarly likely sources of harm;

These statistics are broadly similar across other industries - working at height, and workplace vehicles and machinery are often the most common source of danger and injury in the workplace.

Animal related injuries, whilst not uncommon, are not often the cause of fatalities. In 2015/16 at least, more fatalities were caused in agriculture by drowning or asphyxiation than by animals.

Perhaps the most worrying statistic is that the fatal injury rate for agriculture is 18 times higher than the five-year average for all industries. Farming has 8.61 fatalities per 100,000 workers compared with just 1.82 fatalities per 100,000 for construction.

What might cause this?

It is difficult to be certain as to the exact cause of the higher rate of fatalities in agriculture, but common threads appear to be:

  • The common use of heavy machinery and vehicles, often independently and without formal training:
  • A higher number of lone workers (which, especially when combined with a rural location, may mean help can take longer to arrive in the event of an accident).
  • A traditional approach to working which may lead to increased risk taking and fewer protective measures.

What's the worst that can happen (legally)?

Very broadly, every employer has a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees and members of the public. Breaching that duty is a criminal offence, which can lead to the prosecution and conviction of companies, partnerships and individuals.

Following recent changes in sentencing guidelines, fines have seen a dramatic increase. Six figure fines are now common, especially where serious injury or a fatality has occurred.

In the most serious cases, individuals can be charged with gross negligence manslaughter, which can carry heavy prison sentences. A recent case in Bath provides a chilling example. A failure to properly maintain company vehicles led to the death of 4 people after a truck lost control - this led to a prison sentence of seven years and six months for the company owner, and five years and three months for the mechanic who serviced the vehicles.

There is the additional risk of a civil claim for compensation, which will often run in parallel with any criminal investigation.

How can I prevent it happening?

Fundamentally, there are two areas to focus on:

  • Preventing injury where possible; and
  • Dealing with an injury properly when it has occurred.

In terms of prevention, companies should start by reflecting on their particular business and the risks that arise as a result. No business is without risk, and the most important step to take after identifying  problem areas is to put in place practical control measures. This can be something as simple as ensuring that vehicles are not left idling, or that roofs are assessed for fragility before any work begins. It can be more complex - external advice can often be helpful in identifying hidden risks and suggesting practical control measures to ensure that protection is in place (and that business continues to run smoothly).

If the worst happens, it is not uncommon for a serious or fatal injury to result in a criminal investigation by either the Police or the Health and Safety Executive. As with all criminal investigations you should urgently seek legal advice. An early and full investigation is essential to ensure a good understanding of the causes of  an accident, how it can be prevented in future, and how the case should be dealt with.

If an injury has occurred, please contact our Business Risk and Regulation team on 0117 321 8021 to discuss whether an investigation is likely, and how it should be dealt with.

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