3rd November 2017
Whether you are an individual farmer or you employ others, it is imperative to comply with health and safety regulations. Strikingly, 20 of the people who died on farms in 2016/17 were self-employed. The range of fatal accidents shows how critical it is to manage risk across all areas of agriculture activity; deaths were caused by people being struck by vehicles, trapped by something collapsing, struck by an object, falling from a height, being injured by an animal and coming into contact with electricity.
The principles of health and safety
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. This involves the obligation to maintain health and safety systems, to safeguard manual handling and transport, to provide information, instruction, training and supervision, to ensure safe routes of access and egress, and to maintain equipment.
Breaching health and safety regulation
Breaching health and safety legislation can lead to unlimited fines and even a prison sentence. It could also increase your insurance costs. The duty to comply with regulation rests with the employer. What’s more, unlike most criminal offences, where the prosecution bears the burden for proving guilt, in health and safety cases the defendant must prove they have done everything reasonably practicable to ensure health and safety compliance. This makes health and safety cases notoriously difficult to defend. In addition, under The Health and Safety (Fees) Regulations 2012, those who break health and safety laws are liable for recovery of the HSE’s related costs, including inspection, investigation and taking enforcement action.
Examples of fatal negligence
1) Morecambe Bay
Perhaps one of the most infamous and tragic examples of health and safety negligence in recent years is the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster. In 2004, 23 Chinese workers died while picking cockles on the beach – in the dark and against an incoming tide. Unable to read the warning signs in English, they were trapped by fast-moving tides and tragically drowned. Lin Liangren, the gangmaster, was convicted of criminal negligence and sentenced to 14 years in prison. As a result of the disaster, the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) was established to protect vulnerable and exploited workers. Its licensing scheme regulates businesses that provide workers for agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering and associated processing and packaging industries, to ensure they meet legally required employment standards.
2) Salad pickers enduring semi-slavery
In 2015, Channel 4 News screened an investigation into modern-day “slaves” being used to farm salads supplied to British supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. The company selling these salads and vegetables, Agroherni, is based in Spain and used an employment agency called Integra Empleo to find casual workers. The investigation found the workers were “routinely mistreated, forced to work weeks on end, cheated out of wages and exposed to pesticides.”
EU laws make it illegal for agricultural pickers to work in close proximity to pesticide machines. Yet Channel 4 News filmed dozens of workers labouring in a field that was being sprayed by chemicals. They also spoke to workers who had been signed off sick by doctors as a result of breathing in pesticides. Following the exposé, Agroherni and Integra Empleo denied all the allegations.
3) Dangerous tree climbing
Falling from a height is one of the most common causes of fatal injury in the workplace. One instance we came across involved a farm owner who had instructed his farm manager to climb a tree, relying on rope as the sole security support, while using a chainsaw to cut down branches. The farm manager fell from the tree and, although he wasn’t fatally injured, the farm owner was prosecuted for negligence.
As a duty holder, you should avoid work at height, where possible. You should also use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls if you cannot avoid working at height. Where it’s not possible to eliminate the risk of a fall, you should use work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall, should it occur. In this instance, the rope was clearly insufficient, and the farm manager was neither safeguarded by the right equipment or safety protocol.
4) Vast fines for Laing O’Rourke subsidiaries
In 2017, two subsidiaries of the international engineering giant, Laing O’Rourke, were fined £3.8 million following the death of an employee who was crushed by a falling concrete panel. Explore Manufacturing and Select Plant Hire pleaded guilty to health and safety charges after the 29-year-old victim was knocked out of an elevated basket by a concrete panel that wasn’t properly secured. Following investigation by the HSE, they found a number of failings and concerns regarding storage of concrete panels. One inspector said:
“This tragic incident led to the avoidable death of a young man, whose death could easily have been prevented if the companies had acted following previous warnings to identify and manage the risks involved, maintain the equipment, and put a safe system of work in place.”
5) Death in the food manufacturing industry
The prepared foods manufacturer Bakkavor Foods Limited was fined £2 million for safety failings following the death of a 29-year-old worker. Jacek Adamowicz died when plastic bales weighing 703kg fell on top of him, having been unsafely stacked. The HSE found that Bakkavor “fell far short of the required standard expected”, with a lack of proper planning regarding the storage and stacking of waste bales and the lack of an efficient system to mitigate those risks.
6) Warburtons fined £2 million
Warburtons, the bakery giant, received a fine of £2 million for health and safety failings; its worker had suffered life-changing injuries after falling nearly two metres from a mixing machine. Upon investigation, the HSE found that Warburtons routinely expected employees to clean the top of the mixers, where they were often unable to balance. In addition, employees weren’t supervised sufficiently and hadn’t received training on how to clean the mixers at height.
7) Council pays out after injury from a tractor
Nottinghamshire County Council recently paid a fine of £1 million after a member of the public was struck by a tractor at the Rufford Abbey Country Park. While attending a guided walk, the 71-year-old victim, who was disabled, was struck by the vehicle as it collected fallen branches. The Court heard how the driver of the tractor could not see the member of the public, who suffered injuries to his arms, legs and head. The HSE found that the council had failed to: segregate vehicle movements from the public; ensure appropriate training; supervise work in a public place; and protect employees and the public from risk.
If you’d like to discuss any of the issues covered here, or receive advice on agriculture law, please get in touch with Russell Reeves.