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'I looked down and my leg simply wasn't there' - for farming families, the consequences of a workplace accident are devastating

Support and bereavement group Embrace Farm are soon to hold their first national conference on the multitude of problems presented by farming tragedies.

shutterstock_708132079 Source: Shutterstock/Abd

FOR PETER GOHERY, it was a day like any other on his Galway farm.

Working on his tractor one afternoon in 2009 a couple of hundred metres from his own farmyard, he suffered an injury that is all too common in his line of work – he became entangled with his vehicle’s PTO shaft.

It was an injury that cost him one leg and nearly took the other for good measure.

The PTO shaft is the mechanism at the back of a tractor that drives whatever piece of machinery it happens to be towing at the time.

The shaft runs at 540 revolutions at its top speed. At that rate, if it’s running uncovered, the implement creates a vacuum around it – a deadly one, one that can shave off limbs with ease, and that’s if you’re one of the fortunate ones.

“My leg got wrapped up in the power shaft,” he says. “It was gone before I knew it. I went to step back and it simply wasn’t there. I never felt a thing. Maybe that sounds graphic, but you can’t really sugarcoat it.”

Peter’s PTO had been running at a much lower rate of revolutions than its top speed, which is probably why he survived. The shaft had been without its cover, a fact he was aware of.

“I’m lucky, no doubt about it. When it happened my son was with me, thank God, and he was able to direct the paramedics, who were brilliant. My whole treatment was amazing. My prosthetic (leg) doesn’t slow me down – it’s the damage that was done to the other leg that does that.”

No, the only thing that pissed me off was the insurance. I had one of the banks saying that I would have had to lose both legs to claim on the policy. We pay our taxes, but there’s nothing there for us as farmers.

Dangerous industry

Peter’s point refers to the fact that farming is one of Ireland’s two most dangerous industries, along with construction. Unlike construction, farmers are essentially self-employed. And benefits for the self-employed (or the lack thereof) are not a new issue, as anyone who’s been following recent Budgets may have noted.

There have been 21 deaths on Irish farms so far in 2017. With each death comes the misery of bereavement, but also so much more – the succession of the farm may be at stake, mental health issues have to be dealt with, the victim’s family may have to deal with a loved-one with a serious injury, a survivor may have to learn to live with a prosthetic in order to maintain their livelihood.

shutterstock_728389099 File photo of a tractor's PTO shaft Source: Shutterstock/Katie Flenker

It’s a tangled web. And it’s led to a coalition of sorts, a support group – Embrace FARM (Farming Accidents – Remembered and Missed). Embrace was set up by Laois farmer Brian Rohan after he lost his own father Liam (a champion plougher in his own right) to a farming accident in June 2012.

“Brian wasn’t dealing with his grief,” his wife Norma tells TheJournal.ie.

From my own kitchen window I can see down the farmyard. My husband was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he wasn’t going anywhere with what was on him. We went looking for support for the problem, and we found there wasn’t any.
So we set up Embrace. At the time we weren’t married a year, I had a six-day-old baby when Liam died. There was so much going on in our lives and then we had the tragedy on top of it.

“But the talking and Brian telling his story that the group allowed, with others in the same position. Farmers like talking to farmers. We’ve seen it on weekends with the group, men opening up about how they’ve been operating machinery that killed their own children. Brian was able to tell his story, and I felt like I’d got my husband back again.”

Embrace will hold its first national conference next Saturday, 25 November, at the Midlands Park Hotel in Portlaoise, Co Laois.

Speakers will include two women whose husbands suffered farm accidents, farmers who have suffered injuries, Kerri Leonard from Co Meath (who was run over by a tractor aged six and now competes as an Irish Paralympian), and experts from the professions (legal, mental health, medical) who can offer advice to those reeling from a farming accident.

Unforeseen consequences

“It’s the first time we’ve done this – it’ll be three and a half hours – the first half will be survivors and their families, and then the second half will be speaking about the things that people don’t think about, like who runs a farm after an accident like this,” says Norma.

“Our job is to be there to talk to farmers,” says Peter Gohery, himself a director of Embrace. “Some of the stories would put the hairs standing on the back of your neck.”

Farms are dangerous places for many reasons, not least because the workplace is also the family home, the play area. Young children and the over-65s are most at risk.

“When there are busy times on the farm, like a cattle test, they’re not places for children,” says Norma.

Seanad 23-Mar-2015 (l to r) Brian Rohan, Norma Rohan, Peter Gohery

I’m a mother of three young children. I’ve seen the devastation first hand of an accident. But at the same time, children on a farm need to be nurtured, because a farm needs to be succeeded to.

But almost as dangerous, for the survivors, are the consequences of an accident.

Peter Gohery says that, for him, one of the worst things about his own accident is that “I can’t sit high on my tractor and work all day long”.

“It’s not viable.”

After my accident I got very vocal talking to farmers, I wouldn’t have been that way before. Because there’s so little there in terms of adaptions to get these farmers back to work.

So, what can be done about farm safety? Does it have to be so dangerous, or are there solutions?

“I don’t think penalties are the answer, because farmers feel they’re penalised enough as it is,” says Norma.

All the regulations that are there are for safety, they’re all to protect the general public and the environment. But why does the farmer come bottom of the pile?

She sees education and mentoring as a possible solution.

“Look, farmers won’t take kindly to people coming onto their farms and telling them what to do.”

But they introduced mentoring groups in Sweden, and it was proven to work. They introduced them and the number of deaths fell, they took them away and they increased.

“Proper education is one way forward.”

The first Embrace FARM national conference takes place on Saturday, 25 November at the Midlands Hotel in Portlaoise, Co Laois. Attendance is free, with the event kicking off from 11.30am

Those who wish to attend can do so by emailing embrace.farm@gmail.com, or by texting 085 7709966

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