An agricultural risk expert fears farmers are risking severe financial repercussions, and even jail, because they are unaware of tougher penalties for health and safety breaches.
Richard Wade, of Lycetts Risk Management Services, is worried there is a lack of knowledge among the farming community around The Health and Safety Sentencing Guidelines – particularly that fines are now based on turnover.
Since February 2016, farming companies with a turnover of up to £2m who are found to have breached the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 can expect to pay fines of up to £450,000.
Larger businesses – with turnovers in excess of £50m – can face fines of up to £10m.
Individuals found guilty of breaching the law can be handed unlimited fines or face a two-year prison sentence.
Judges could previously only impose custodial sentences in very specific circumstances, with fines in the lower courts limited to £20,000.
Richard said: “Health and safety breaches can have very serious, and even fatal, consequences and it is only right that they are dealt with appropriately. Anything to improve health and safety in one of the most dangerous industries is certainly welcomed and supported.
“But our feedback from farmers suggests many may not fully comprehend how business-critical a breach can be. It is no longer a slap on a wrist and a fine amounting to hundreds of pounds. Farmers who are lax with their health and safety procedures can expect to feel the full force of the law.
“Now a number factors are taken into account when deciding punishment, including the level of culpability, the risk of causing harm and the level of potential harm, and the turnover of the offending business.
“These guidelines are meant to act as a deterrent – and farmers should be aware that lapses in judgement, or a failure to take a proactive approach to safety, could cripple their operations.”
Agriculture has the worst rate of worker fatal injury – 7.61 per 100,000 people – which is 18 times higher than the all industry rate.
In 2016/17, 30 people were killed in agriculture.
Although not all fatalities on farms are a result of health and safety breaches, these figures highlight how risky an industry it is.
A company in Essex was fined £120,000 earlier this year after an employee was seriously injured by a chainsaw while felling trees.
A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that the man had not been trained to operate the chainsaw, nor was he wearing any personal protective equipment. There was no supervision and no proper planning had been put in place.
A company in the South West was fined £115,000 after a worker fell from height at a farm.
The worker fell through a fragile skylight and broke his back.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company failed to take adequate precautions to prevent workers falling from height.
There was no edge protection, under-roof netting or boarding provided on site. The company instead relied on an ineffective use of harnesses.
It was found that unsafe working had been taking place for months before the accident and then continued for months afterwards.
Richard said: “These cases – and the significantly higher fines – serve to illustrate how seriously courts are taking health and safety breaches on farms and highlight what farmers can expect if they cut corners or take shortcuts.
“People’s lives are being put at risk on a daily basis on farms and an accident can have a devastating effect on the victim and their family.
"Farmers need to prioritise compliance with the health and safety regulations and make sure they are doing all they can do to protect their workers – or face the consequences.”