The Engineer's role in Improving Safety and Health in the Land-Based Industries

16 April 2013

IOSH Rural Industries Group Vice-Chair Alan Plom recently spoke at and chaired the afternoon session at a Conference organised by the Institution of Agricultural Engineers (IAgrE). Entitled "Agricultural Engineering and Compliance – Thorn in the side or competitive advantage?”, speakers explored the important role played by agricultural engineers in improving health and safety and identified areas where technical innovations may be able to bring about further positive improvements in land-based industries. However, the key challenge is how to change behaviours. This was highlighted in an analysis of the fatal incidents reported to HSE over the past 10 years.

The well-attended Conference was held at Harper Adams University in Shropshire on 14 March 2013 and the presentations are now available on the IAgrE website at  IAgre Landwards 2013 Presentations

Whilst the statistics continue to show that agriculture and the land-based industries are amongst the most hazardous in the UK, HSE’s Andrew Turner’s keynote speech provided an interesting analysis of reported fatal incidents.  This revealed that approx 39% of the 436 fatalities that have incurred in agriculture over the past 10 years involved machinery. 25 of these 31 deaths involved actual ‘contact with machinery’ (as opposed to machines overturning or being run-over).  19 of these occurred during maintenance or adjustment - only 6 whilst the machine was actually being used.

Therefore, although engineering and technical innovations have a role to play in designing machines for safer maintenance and operation, it is quite clear that the major common factor in accidents is the behaviour of individuals.  Influencing operator practice is the major challenge - not just for designers.

This was endorsed by Dr Mark Cooper who highlighted human factors and the types and causes of ‘human error’.  It has been suggested that complacency might even be encouraged by the operator feeling protected by the high standard guarding and safety features on modern machines. Mark called for research to create a better understanding of the “taxonomy of skill-based, rule based and knowledge-based errors and violations” [citing research by Reason, reported in 1990].

Also in the morning session, Keith Hawken (Technical & Standards Director for the AEA - the agricultural and land-based machinery manufacturer’s organisation) outlined the lengthy and complex process involved in developing standards in an international market and the interface with legislation.  These often combine to restrict what manufacturers can do – or at least can delay introduction of innovations.  He called on those working in the industry to help by volunteering to contribute to the work of standards committees. Contact Keith Hawken

Alan Plom (on behalf of IOSH Rural Industries Group and as chair of the new Farm Safety Partnership’s Machinery Safety sub-group) introduced the afternoon session and lead the discussion groups by reflecting on his own experiences during his 36 years involved with health and safety in agriculture and related industries, including 32 years as an HSE Inspector.  He reviewed the significant developments since the original agricultural machinery safety Regulations were introduced in the mid-1950’s through to the ‘modern day’ European Directives, goal-setting Regulations and EN Standards.  He also highlighted some recent developments and offered a vision for the future.

Alan also challenged those working in the industry to contribute, eg by signing up to support the Farm Safety Partnership contact the NFU’s Amy Gray

IOSH also intends to convene a Machinery Safety Workshop on behalf of the FSP, and all attendees would be invited.

This was followed by 2 very interesting speakers who described practical examples of the value of the risk assessment process. Mike Whiting (a Certification Engineer with Newmac Ltd)outlined a failure in machine design and the steps that should be taken to develop safe machinery using the basic principles of good design and reference to relevant standards, in order to achieve CE Marking. 

Paul Reynolds (CMIOSH and a consultant with the NFU Mutual’s Risk Management Services Ltd) gave an amusing account of his role in ensuring BBC Top Gear’s flame-spitting, grit-throwing“ SnowCombine” could be operated safely.  Perhaps the greatest risk was from the ‘Bovril-boiler’ in the cab. This was an excellent example of pragmatic risk assessment in action designed to protect three of the BBC’s highest earning ‘Superstars’ - Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May – as well as the film crew and innocent bystanders!  Despite what Mr Clarkson might think (and often say) to get ‘elfansafety’ a bad name, Paul successfully demonstrated that going back to basics in a risk assessment can provide practical solutions rather than hinder the process.

A very energetic discussion session followed and in feedback from the various groups it was concluded that agricultural engineers need to continue to work closely with many other disciplines and organisations to develop more effective systems of work, safety devices, safer machinery and equipment for use on farms and by the land-based industry more widely, including forestry, the amenity sector and working on-road as well as off-road. 

More also needs to be done to protect the health of operators, as well as safety. The occupational ill health ‘time-bomb’ is ticking, with cases of musculo-skeletal disorders, hearing loss, hand-arm and whole-body vibration increasingly being reported and finding their way into civil claims and criminal Courts.

Agricultural engineers obviously play a significant part directly as designers and technicians in manufacturers, through the dealer/service network, but also as managers, researchers, advisors and consultants within the industry, but we need to find ways to change behaviours and influence purchasers and users of machinery.

It is hoped that possible technical, research and networking opportunities (eg to involve agricultural engineers in the production of information and guidance and promoting good practice) will be identified at RIG’s proposed Machinery Safety Workshop.

Working with the industry’s new Farm Safety Partnership* and its member organisations will  also provide an opportunity for agricultural engineers and health and safety professionals to help develop, recognise and promote ‘safe design’, as well as raising awareness and encouraging adoption of ‘good practice’.

Other options include ‘Safe Design’ awards and initiatives to promote safe practice, such as at the SIMA Show in Paris earlier this year, and in Colleges.  IAgrE already sponsor a ‘Safe Project’ Award for students.  Any other ideas welcome.  Please contact Alan Plom

The presentations from the Conference are available on the IAgrE website

*For more information on the ‘Farm Safety Partnership’ and several useful Information Sheets see: NFU On Line Farm Safety Partnership

The FSP was formed following the ‘Farm Safety Summit’ held in September 2010.  Membership of the ‘Farm Safety Partnership’ continues to expand and IOSH Rural Industries Group are committed to work with other leading organisations and businesses to deliver improvements in the industry, e.g. through specific initiatives and producing guidance.

Prepared by Mr Alan Plom Rural Industries Group Event Champion

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). Where the content includes discussion and information about UK law or occupational health matters, this should not be regarded as legal or medical advice. Where legal advice is required, a suitably qualified lawyer should be consulted. Where medical advice is required, a suitably qualified medical practitioner should be consulted.