Government action on agricultural deaths urgently needed, urges Unite

On the eve of this year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day (Saturday 28 April), Unite, the UK largest union, is calling on the government to take urgent action to improve safety in agriculture, Britain’s most dangerous industry.

Last year there were 27 deaths in agriculture, 20 per cent of the total fatality figure, despite the industry employing just one per cent of the UK’s workforce. However the fatality figures do not include road traffic accidents, in the last five years there have been 122 fatal road traffic accidents involving agricultural vehicles, which included 14 drivers or passengers of these vehicles.

Despite these figures the government has failed to take basic steps to improve agricultural vehicle safety. Last year the government decided not to require tractors to have an MoT certificate to ensure their roadworthiness.

The decision not to require tractors to have MoTs was taken by the Department of Transport following lobbying from farmers.

The rules on who can drive a tractor are lax. A 13 year old is allowed to legally drive a tractor on private land. A 16 year old can take a driving test and drive a tractor with a trailer attached on the open road.

Despite the dangerous nature of the agricultural industry, formal unannounced inspections are a rarity. A freedom of information request has revealed that in 2016/17 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) made just 403 such inspections at agricultural workplaces. There are 218,000 agricultural holdings in the UK, meaning that just 0.2 per cent are inspected each year.

In the last five years following unannounced inspections and with a large number of these premises being served with an enforcement notice (56) or a notice of contravention (72), demonstrating high levels of non-compliance, the HSE has prosecuted just one agricultural employer for breaking safety laws.

Unite acting national officer for agriculture, Joe Clarke, said: “Urgent action is needed to ensure that agricultural workers are not killed, maimed or injured at work. Deaths and injuries should not be considered as an occupational hazard of the farming industry.

“Too many government departments are guilty of looking the other way and caving into vested interests, rather than taking action to improve the safety of farm workers.

“Farm safety will not be significantly improved until there is a dramatic overhaul of agricultural safety laws, backed up by an effective enforcement regime.

“Farmers who are prepared to break safety laws, are highly unlikely to mend their ways, as they know they are unlikely ever to be inspected and even if they are the chances of being prosecuted are highly remote.”

International Workers’ Memorial Day takes place on 28 April every year, it is when workers come together to ‘remember the dead and vow to fight for the living’.