Cormac Blee from BLM Law discusses animal safety:

The Farm Safety Partnership (FSP), which was established in 2012 by a number of groups representing key stakeholders in the agricultural sector, identified four key dangers facing those employed in the farming industry; slurry, animals, falls and equipment which have been commonly referred to by the acronym “SAFE”.

On 19 October 2016, Breige McKeefry became the most recent victim of an animal related accident as she sadly lost her life on the family farm in Garvagh, Co. Derry when she was attacked by an animal. During the four year period from 2009 to 2012 there were 29 farming related fatalities in this jurisdiction. To place this figure in context, eight people employed in manufacturing lost their lives during the same period with the figures for construction and other sectors amounting to six and eight respectively. Consequently, an eye-watering 57% of all work-related deaths came from agriculture despite employing fewer people than the other sectors. The grim reality becomes even starker when one considers that the FSP noted a considerable under-reporting of non-fatal accidents or near misses.

The current Farm Safety Action Plan was produced to tackle the alarming number of accidents and near misses occurring on farms in Northern Ireland. 21% of farm related accidents arose as a consequence of incidents involving animals. Interestingly the FSP’s research indicated that “a growing number of stakeholders are saying accidents are not inevitable, they are avoidable.” This appears to provide some substantive evidence that attitudes within the farming sector are gradually changing and improving.

The 2015 Annual Census published by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development noted that 1,609,000 cattle, 937,000 sheep and 569,000 pigs were farmed in Northern Ireland. Cattle pose the greatest risk to farmers due to their size and strength.

The farming industry as a whole needs to carefully consider the risks associated with working with animals and take steps to reduce the chances of accidents occurring. Farmers are at risk from kicking, butting, goring or crushing. More often than not however, farmers are in danger from their own complacency as familiarity with animals, and a belief that they have a docile disposition, can lead to reduced alertness and a tendency to cut corners. There are however, measures that can be taken to protect those involved.

Farmers should be aware that if they are employing anyone on their farm, Article 4 of the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order requires them to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.” The first step farmers should seriously consider is conducting a formal risk assessment and recording the results. Indeed if a farmer is employing anyone else to assist them, there is a legal obligation under Article 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 to conduct a risk assessment. Regardless of the legal requirement, this is good practice and will serve to kick-start the process of famers giving thought to the risks they face. Article 13 of the same Regulations also directs famers to take employees’ capabilities into consideration when assigning tasks and provide adequate health and safety training. Farms must have well designed and maintained facilities accompanied by adequate numbers of trained and competent workers before beginning work with animals.

In terms of the development of facilities farms should include a proper race and crush to ensure easy handling of animals. The use of temporary or makeshift equipment only serves to increase the risk of accidents and should therefore be avoided at all costs. Furthermore, when putting larger animals such as cattle into a crush, it is wise to use a bar, chain or rail at the rump of the animal, in addition to an adequate head restraint, to prevent forward and backward movement of the animal. The use of slip resistant flooring in such areas is also recommended as an animal losing its footing is likely to become more frightened and volatile and this can have a similar effect on other animals in the vicinity. Another worthwhile investment is an anti-kicking device to prevent animals from delivering a painful blow to those working with them. Farmers specifically working with sheep should consider installing shedding gates and turnover crates whilst those engaged in farming pigs should give consideration to pig boards and facilities to keep sows restrained or segregated whilst working with piglets.

Bulls are arguably the single greatest source of animal danger within the agricultural sector as they possess the strength and deceptive agility to cause significant harm. It should become common practice to ring bulls’ noses from 10 months old onwards and nose rings must thereafter be regularly checked for signs of damage or wear. Bulls ought to be kept in specifically designated and properly designed pens which include escape routes for farmers in the event of bulls becoming aggressive. Pens should be designed such that bulls can be cleaned out and bedded without direct contact taking place with the animal, whilst feeding should also be done from outside the pen. The walls or fences keeping a bull restrained should be at least 1.5m high. It is prudent to place warning signs on any shed housing a bull to alert those entering of its presence.

If a bull is purchased from an external source it is worth making efforts to establish how the bull was previously handled and what equipment was used. A wariness should be maintained about significantly changing a bull’s circumstances and handling arrangements as this can excite or unsettle the animal. It is also vitally important to maintain a dispassionate policy of culling any noticeably aggressive animals. If bulls are not housed inside, be aware of any fields or areas over which rights of way exist in favour of neighbours or the general public and do not keep bulls on this land.

Cows can pose dangers which should also be heeded. They need to be treated carefully after they have calved as their inherent maternal instinct can lead to a period of increased aggression towards people in the vicinity of their calf. The release of livestock in spring is also a high risk activity as the excitement and energy generated by their release from the constraints of pens and sheds into the outdoors can lead to behaviour which would otherwise be out of character. When checking livestock grazing, it is advisable to do so from a safe distance, from a vehicle or, if entry to a field on foot is necessary, carry a stick and plan an escape route if any animal becomes aggressive.

Health and safety requirements can be cumbersome and challenging to pursue, in particular for smaller farms, however acceptance of these requirements as vital bulwarks to eliminate risk and preserve human safety will lead to the decrease of the familiar experience of pain and grief within the industry. By considering and implementing the matters outlined above, farmers can improve their individual practices. The culture within the industry as a whole will eventually follow suit resulting in fewer accidents, injuries and deaths.