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OP campaigners demand more information after key HSE document published

A 1992 HSE report shedding light on the impact of OP sheep dips on farmers has finally been published. Now OP campaigners want to see more information about the decision to end compulsory use of OP sheep dips in 1992.
MAFF ended compulsory sheep dipping in 1992. Campaigners want to know why.
MAFF ended compulsory sheep dipping in 1992. Campaigners want to know why.

A group campaigning for recognition for victims of organophosphate (OP) poisoning is demanding full disclosure of discussions within Government that preceded the decision to end compulsory sheep dipping in 1992.


The call follows the release last week by the Health and Safety Executive of its 1992 Sheep Dipping Survey, which shed more light on the problems OP dips were causing at the time.


The document, which the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group has been campaigning to have released for nearly a year, can be viewed on the group’s website here and here.


The group said the document suggested tens of thousands of sheep farmers could have been affected by using OP dips when they were compulsory between 1976 and 1992.


The Government has never acknowledged any link between the risk to users and its decision to end compulsory use in June 1992.


But the group believes the key authorities at the time, MAFF and the HSE, had full knowledge of the damage the chemicals were causing, which is why the decision was made.


The support group’s co-ordinator, Tom Rigby, a Lancashire farmer, said: “It does seem by 1992 HSE were aware of the devastating effects dipping was having on the health of sheep farmers.


“We believe this is the reason MAFF ended compulsory dipping in June that year (something they have always denied) and we request disclosure of correspondence between HSE and MAFF in the weeks prior to that decision being taken.


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How many people were affected by compulsory OP sheep dipping?

  • Treating sheep with OPs was compulsory between 1976 and 1992.
  • HSE identified 700 farmers in 16 different regions - 385 in England, 155 in Scotland and 160 in Wales - selected to be broadly typical of the whole. Ultimately 696 surveys were completed.
  • There were 160 occasions described where some form of ill-health occurred after dipping, only three of which had been reported to MAFF/VMD.
  • If this was representative of UK's 90,400 sheep flocks it suggests over 20,000 cases nationwide, according Mr Rigby.
  • HSE'S Epidemiology and Medical Statistics Unit suggested a better way of expressing these findings were as ‘a crude incident rate of 8.9 self-reported illness episodes per 1000 dippers per annum’. This suggests a total of over 33,000 for MAFF's compulsory dipping years 1976-92.
  • But Mr Rigby said trying to calculate incident rate this way almost certainly gives an under-estimate as it ignores fatalities and those too ill to continue working.
  • A survey by the NFU of their members in the South West found 34 per cent reporting effects of ill-health after dipping.
  • A smaller survey in Cumbria reported 40 per cent.
  • If the South West survey was representative of the country as a whole it suggests over 60,000 people may have been affected, Mr Rigby said.

Dipping practices

The support group first requested a copy of the 1992 HSE report in March 2015 and after initially being told there was no record of it, finally received it in full last week.


The HSE report said it represented ‘a snap shot of sheep dippers' views at the time and they have value because of that’.


The initial results of the HSE study were published as a news release in July 1993 under the title "HSE SURVEY CONFIRMS POOR WORKING PRACTICES DURING SHEEP DIPPING".


It pointed to dipping practices such as using hands or feet immerse sheep, identified on 48 farms (7 per cent of the total). The head of HSE's Livestock National Interest Group said at the time the survey 'confirmed our view of where the problems lie'.


But Mr Rigby refuted the suggestion farmers could be blamed, claiming the full report suggested no correlation between dipping practice and reports of ill-health.


Although contract dippers, who were exclusively using dipping aids, made up only 2.4 per cent of the total surveyed they accounted for 10.6 per cent of incidents.


This was a higher proportion than the 662 farmers, including those using hands and feet.


Mr Rigby said: “This suggests the greatest single factor seems to be cumulative exposure (and since they were also found to be wearing better protective clothing than farmers then maybe main route of exposure was inhalation).”


The report observed some farmers noticed less problems using non-OP dips and concluded: "Farmers need to be encouraged to substitute a hazardous product (OPs) with a less hazardous product (non OP)".


Mr Rigby said: “Sadly however for the last 23 years the ill-health of farmers affected has been ignored, all non-OP have since been taken off the market leaving OPs as the only products available for dipping.”


Farming Minister George Eustice denied accusations of a Government cover-up during a debate on organophosphate (OP) poisoning in the House of Commons in June 2015.


Calls for an independent inquiry into the long-running OP saga have been made by Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham, who has hosted two meetings on the subject in the Commons.



Former animal health inspector Peter Tyrer talks about his experience of OPs


Defra response

Defra response

Farming Minister George Eustice met the Sheep Dip Sufferers Group in November.


He reiterated the Government's position, based on research by the Committee on Toxicity, that low-level exposure to sheep dips does not cause long-term health effects in adults.


He said: “Following the meeting with the Sheep Dip Sufferers Group in November I gave an undertaking to look back through the archives from the time when compulsory dipping was discontinued.


"This work is underway and we hope to provide more information in due course.


“I am sympathetic to farmers suffering from ill health and acknowledge that some of them associate their illness with the use of organophosphate sheep dips.


“The use of organophosphate is controlled to minimize the risk to humans and safety advice has always been based on the latest available scientific evidence.


“The Government committed over £4million to research this issue, and the Committee on Toxicity has looked at this matter exhaustively over the past decade.


"Its conclusions are clear that low-level exposure to organophosphate does not cause long-term health affect in adults. However acute poisoning can, in some cases, have longer-term effects.”

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