12 November 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Although it was not its assigned purpose, a fascinating and at times troubling picture of life at the coalface of agricultural production in this country emerged from the proceedings of a major gathering of the industry’s practitioners and advisers in Monaghan Town last week.

The all island farm safety conference was a co-ordinated attempt by agencies North and South to assess the unacceptably high level of Irish farm fatality and serious injury and test strategies for the problem’s address.

The perception of farming as a profession encompassing inevitable dangers that will always visit some level of harm on those who engage in it has been challenged in recent years.

Shock among all sections of society evoked by some high-profile fatal farm accidents has galvanised the industry and those State entities with an industrial safety role to attempt to confront the problem at source.

Information campaigns and a mixture of inducements and sanctions have been employed to raise consciousness of safety responsibilities among farm professionals and assist them in making remedial investments.

How effective the remedies have been seems to depend on when an assessment of them is made. Sometimes the situation appears improved, only for it to suddenly get worse, and the problem never goes away.

So far this year fifteen people have lost their lives on farms in the Republic, two of them in Co Monaghan. Four people have died in the North.

The different perspectives generating the presentations and debate at the Monaghan conference all seemed to agree on one conclusion: those who make their living on farms are now acutely aware of the dangers their working environment can pose to themselves, their families, employees and visitors, but are sometimes either unwilling or unable to bring about the behavioural changes that would abate the risks.

Why this is may be explained by the picture of the modern Irish industry that indirectly emerged from the proceedings.

Agricultural production remains the most important component of the engine driving economic activity in this country. In our own county, for example, it is intrinsic to food processing and the considerable employment this sector generates for our people and supplies a myriad of retail concerns which are also a major source of jobs.

The farmer has many people depending on him – he must cater to a constant and escalating demand home and abroad, which often dictates investment in and deployment of a range of high-powered machinery and sophisticated technology that escalate the risk factor of the profession.

Not only must he meet the incessant clamour of the demand, but he must do so in adherence to a complex set of rules designed to ensure that his output is produced sustainably and in conformity to modern tastes and trends in quality and nutrition, and that he doesn’t harm the environment or pollute the countryside while hitting his marks.

Money has to be found to make the investments necessary to keep up with what society expects of him – but when he turns to the market for the return needed to stay the pace, he often finds that the forces of competition that rule the multiples, and the harsh mistress of globalisation, don’t deem his efforts worth much more than a meagre portion. And if he complains about his lot, society has evolved a stereotype of the eternal malcontent to comfort the deaf ear it often chooses to turn to him.

Our aspirational, acquisitive society and its patterns of consumption have created such a highly pressurised environment for farmers to work in that a considered analysis suggests that the relevant question is not why so many people continue to die and get seriously hurt in agriculture, but rather why the statistics are not even more shocking.

The presentation made to the Monaghan conference by Dr Denis O’Hora, from the School of Psychology at NUI Galway, identified stress and anxiety, often generated by subjective financial threat, as potentially highly significant factors in farm accidents.

Safety concerns, Dr O’Hora stated, were competing with production concerns in farmers’ minds, and it was often the case that “the urgent drives out the important”.

The academic’s analysis was insightful not only of the factors that create the conditions under which tragedies on Irish farms occur, but also of the considerable mental health pressures that modern farming practices have become associated with.

He advocated social support as the most reliable means of safeguarding farmers from adverse mental health outcomes and reducing the anxiety and stress factors that heightened their injury risk.

Knowledge exchange, mentoring and simple farmer to farmer interaction also emerged from other elements of the conference as important means through which best farm safety practice can be disseminated. The effectiveness of this approach was demonstrated at the event itself when a number of very sensible, practical and relatively inexpensive tips were exchanged which could very easily end up saving life and limb in the future – one of the best being the advice to those engaged in farm work to always have a reliable mobile phone on their person in the event of a sudden accident or emergency befalling them.

Access by farmers to better social support will certainly improve the chances of the farm safety problem being reduced towards elimination.

But the dangers attendant to modern Irish farming will perhaps never be totally effaced until wider society examines the punishing demands it carelessly makes on the sector and resolves to match them with its own compensating support mechanisms.

As former Irish rugby international and Newry farmer Simon Best said at the Monaghan event: “Farmers are extremely proud of what they do, sometimes without appreciation or recompense, and more support to help them improve their businesses would be appreciated.”

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