COVID-19 turned the whole world upside down in a matter of days, affecting every sector in every corner of the UK says Simon Houghton, risk consultant at Lycetts Risk Management Services (LRMS).
As we all try to readjust to the new normal, the farming community has risen to the challenge of feeding the nation with courage and tenacity and we salute all those keeping going under increasingly challenging conditions.
As farmers evolve to meet demand, here are five COVID-19 related health and safety reminders to keep you and the general public safe.
1) Looking after inexperienced workers
Hot on the heels of Brexit, Covid-19 poses another huge threat to the supply of farm labourers to help with this year’s harvest. In the absence of many pickers from Europe given the current stringent travel restrictions, local labour may come in the form of inexperienced workers from the locality or elsewhere in the UK.
This poses two potential problems.
Employing people who are unfamiliar with the many hazards that can be found on farms and maintaining social distancing guidelines in an agricultural environment.
Although bending and lifting activities are the most likely cause of injury for an inexperienced (or unfit) seasonal worker, they are not the only potential causes. Inexperienced workers may not be aware of hazards posed by livestock in and around the farm, vehicle movements, use of tools, use of ladders and interacting with farm machinery (for example when they load produce into a machine).
To avoid any potential liability claims down the line, we would advise all farmers to expand their induction process to give back to basics, clear instructions and to increase supervision to ensure that appropriate procedures are being followed appropriately.
Make sure you provide sufficient options to allow social distancing guidelines to be maintained. If a two-metre distance cannot be maintained, staff should work side-by-side, or facing away from each other, rather than face-to-face if possible.
You should communicate to all staff that they should wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or more and more frequently than normal.
2) Beware of slip and trip hazards in newly created sales environments
Some farmers are seeing a surge in demand for home grown and homemade produce, as UK consumers continue to stock up for the family and look for alternative sources for the weekly grocery shop.
It may be tempting (and understandable) to extend into an old barn but, before you do, just take a walk round every square metre of it to identify potential slip and trip hazards for customers.
Keep a close eye out too for overly high racking and stacking issues and on possible hygiene challenges, particularly for perishable goods.
Your business reputation will thank you for it further down the line.
Check your insurance policy to make sure the new building is still covered if it has completely changed it use and give your broker a quick call to double check.
3) Do not forget that your farm machinery inspections will still be required throughout Covid-19
Although emergency extensions have been granted during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as MOTs and first aid certificates, the law for Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) requirements remains in place.
Ensuring farm machinery is safe to use is not only key to keeping operations going during the pandemic but it is imperative for the survival of farmers, their workers, the business and its reputation.
Engineering certificates demonstrate that the farmer is complying with legal requirements, that the machine has been maintained, it is in good, safe working order, and is suitable for further use.
During the period of the outbreak, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said that farmers must be able to demonstrate that they have made all reasonable attempts to have the thorough examination and testing (TE&T) carried out within the required timescales.
However, if equipment is to continue in use without TE&T, then farmers must assess the increased risk and take appropriate action to manage it.
Should an incident occur and HSE investigate, the farmer could be prosecuted or fined, if found to be at fault or negligent.
4) Consider alternative pesticides if you cannot get hold of any PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
The NHS has, quite rightly, taken priority ownership of all available PPE in the UK currently but this has a knock-on effect on several other sectors, including agriculture where respirators and goggles are often used to protect employees applying pesticides and fertilisers.
We have no magic wand for this unprecedented situation but would advise famers facing a shortage of PPE to consider using more organic and non-hazardous products that do not require personal protective equipment.
The non-hazardous products may not be as effective, but they will ensure the safety of your employees in the absence of PPE.
5) Tell the public (politely) to keep away
The recent run of blue skies and sunshine has proved to be a problem during the Covid-19 lockdown with urbanites taking themselves off to the countryside for long walks and fresh air – without realising they could be spreading the disease to farmers and their families via gates and stiles.
Farmers are also at risk of losing sheep. With more people comes more dogs, and while a dog may not physically attack a sheep, the stress from worrying can cause sheep to die and expectant ewes to miscarry.
Stay at home
The problem has highlighted very effectively by Scottish farmer, Emma Murdoch, who took to YouTube and social media to ask the public to stay home.
Unfortunately, you cannot force people to stay home but you can put large and obvious signs up explaining the risks of them being there, reminding them of responsible use of right of ways and politely asking them to keep away.
6) Do not take risks when it comes to children and farm machinery
There is an assumption that farm children understand farm risks but most children who are fatally or seriously injured in farm incidents are family members.
With schools out and helping hands needed, children may be a more frequent sight on-site.
But farmyards are not schoolyards and now is the time for farmers to be extra vigilant about the health and safety of children.
Coming into contact with machinery is one of the biggest causes of death in young people, with incidents of children being hit or run over by farm machinery or falling from tractors or ATVS an all too common occurrence.
The law is clear on what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to children and farm machinery, so farmers should keep this at the forefront of their minds during these trying times.
It is against the law to allow a child under 13 to ride on or drive agricultural self-propelled machines, such as tractors, and it is illegal for them to be carried in the cab.
Children over the age of 13 can drive an appropriate tractor on farmland but they must hold a nationally recognised certificate of competence in the safe driving and operation of tractors to do so.
It is also a legal requirement for employers to provide adequate training for employees who use ATVs.
This should extend to family members, including children over the age of 13, who anecdotal evidence suggests are regular ATV users and who are all too frequently forgotten about when it comes to health and safety compliance.
No child under 13 is legally permitted to drive an ATV for work.
They are also prohibited to ride as passengers.
The law also requires that employers make sure their risk assessment for young people under the age of 18 takes full account of their inexperience, immaturity and lack of awareness of relevant risks.
Remember, children should always be supervised by an adult, who is not directly involved in farm work, and never left to roam around the farm freely.