Agriculture fatalities remain too high

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It was once said that the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner did not compose nine symphonies but composed one symphony nine times. More of that later.

In the meantime the Health & Safety Executive has recently published its 2018/19 figures. Yet again, the agriculture sector accounts for the largest proportion of workplace fatalities – 16 worker deaths were East Anglia-based and 32 out of 147 deaths occurred in work that includes forestry and fishing.

Agriculture and construction are continuing problem areas accounting for 62 deaths. Agriculture and waste sectors have a far higher propensity for fatal accidents to occur than all other sectors – disturbingly, agriculture is the highest with a rate of injury 18 times greater than all sectors.

The types of incidents causing deaths remain the same: falls from height, being struck by moving vehicles or objects, or being trapped by something having overturned or collapsed. 25% of injuries were sustained by those over 60 though they account for only 10% of the workforce. In all sectors – not just agriculture – the older the worker the higher the injury rate.

This is against a backcloth of sky-high fines imposed against businesses and individuals since February 2016 when an increased sentencing approach was implemented for medium and large businesses particularly. Today six or seven figure fines are commonplace.

Of course, because a fatality or serious accident occurs does not mean that any health and safety offence has occurred. It may have happened despite good safety measures, just as, paradoxically, accidents do not occur despite unsafe working conditions and exposure to risk.

Worker fatalities have bottomed out over the last five years, a pattern also seen in fatal road traffic accidents where it appears a plateau has been reached.

This reflects the approach where many businesses strongly focus on safety with significant investment in training, systems and management whilst too many fall short.

Rural businesses often feel they are fighting on various regulatory fronts more so than other sectors. Certainly it is challenging in this regard but all regulatory compliance should be seen really as the same music – back to Bruckner – just composed in slightly different ways.

All regulatory systems set out to ensure safety, health and public protection, whilst ensuring there is a fair and level playing field, as why should one rural business profit by taking shortcuts at the expense of another that operates safely and responsibly?

It does not matter if it is environmental, bio-security, animal welfare, health and safety, goods operator licensing or any other form of compliance; the symphony is the same, namely that there must be:

  • clearly written procedure and systems of work in place
  • relevant training of staff with refresher training
  • constant monitoring / auditing of systems and procedures
  • a system of regular legal updates
  • action taken against those who cannot or will not comply
  • correct licences or permits covering the areas of work undertaken
  • competent management that is engaged at all levels.

When considering safety and the possibilities of accidents (where bodies such as the HSE or Environment Agency might investigate and take court action) there arises the question of the most appropriate form of trading entity. Whilst sole traderships and partnerships remain common place there is no doubt that trading as a limited company (or LLP) brings unquestionable advantages of limited liability status. Whilst directors and others within a business can be prosecuted, it is the company that is invariably pursued. A conviction is against that entity and not the individual. Rural businesses should consider trading as individuals and partnerships versus whether the protection of company status should be deployed.

Tim Ridyard specialises in regulatory law advising and supporting Ashtons’ rural clients in relation to environmental matters, health & safety and agricultural transport.


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