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Farmers' health and safety group "could save lives"

When a group of farmers realised that health and safety was a big issue on their farms, they took things into their own hands – and won an award for their work.

Brendan McGarry, Chairman of the West Offaly Dairy Discussion Group, Dr Christa Sedlatschek, Director Of EU-OSHA, László Andor, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion and James Moyles, Teagasc Advisor.
Brendan McGarry, Chairman of the West Offaly Dairy Discussion Group, Dr Christa Sedlatschek, Director Of EU-OSHA, László Andor, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion and James Moyles, Teagasc Advisor.

WITH 22 PEOPLE losing their lives in farm-related accidents in 2011, it is clear that health and safety needs to be a high priority for Irish farmers.

The agriculture sector has the highest fatality rate of any in the Irish economy, and one group that is working to reduce this is the West Offaly Dairy Discussion Group.

Brendan McGarry, the chairman of the group, farms in Lusmagh, Co Offaly. He spoke to TheJournal.ie about their work, and their recent win at the European Good Practice Awards, which is organised by the Irish EU presidency in cooperation with the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

Statistics show that farmers are up to 10 times more likely than other workers to be killed at work, and on average someone dies on a farm every two weeks.

Action taken

The discussion group was reformed in 2007, and now has 15 dairy farmer members who meet monthly on members’ farms to discuss and improve the farms, including in the area of health and safety.

Each member has completed an electronic risk assessment on their farm, and carried out health and safety actions, including reducing risks for children and older farmers, assessing the safety of chemicals, reducing risks from using machinery and improving farm buildings. A ‘Group Farm Safety Case Study’ was also produced over the past year by the farmers.

In total, over 190 actions have been taken by them to reduce or eliminate hazards, and the group say their project has the potential to save the life of a group member or one of their families. So far, they have voluntarily spent €1,600 on safety equipment.

They say their step-by-step guide could easily be adopted by other farmer discussion groups across Ireland.

McGarry said the group works because they are “really honest guys, all thinking on the one wavelength”. They must be able to take constructive criticism, he said, and to admit when issues need to be worked on.

The project showed how health and safety is often put on the backburner for farmers. “Only two of us had a health and safety statement before [the group],” said McGarry.

When group member Aidan Kenny brought up the idea of focusing on health and safety, at first the members weren’t enthused – until Kenny outlined the reasons.

He made a very good point: our workplace is also our home. Our families are there – so it’s vital to get health and safety right.

They have been guided through their work by the Farm Safely website. McGarry is astonished that none of the farmers were aware of the Farm Safely website beforehand, given that it was so important in giving them deadlines and actions to work towards. “It is an unbelievable site,” said McGarry.

He added that for farmers, time management is very important: “I think that’s vital: you plan your day, you plan your work, and you take a safe route to it. Every morning now I think ‘safety’.”

Health and safety is something that can’t be forgotten about, and the need for awareness never ends. It is, said McGarry “the small little things making a difference”.

Nationwide

The group would like to see their work being rolled out into other discussion groups nationwide, as they say it has the potential to save lives. They are disappointed, said McGarry, that the Farm Safely website isn’t promoted to farmers more, as it is such a good resource.

There can be a “fear factor” with health and safety inspections, so having an ongoing focus on this through using the skills of farming peers, helps to keep the issue approachable.

McGarry also sees the group as being hugely important during events such as the current fodder crisis, as it helps farmers realise they are not alone in experiencing problems.

The group won €6,000 in the recent competition, and have put that into a fund for travelling to other farms. They have already been to Wales and Scotland visiting farms, where both they and their hosts learned something new. Now, they have their sights on visiting a farm in mainland Europe.

The majority of the group work alone, making safety awareness even more important. For the West Offaly Dairy Discussion Group, their meetings have been an essential part in making their work safer. “Every farmer in the country should do his best to join a discussion group,” concluded McGarry.

Read: “One moment off-balance and my leg was gone”>

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