Why are cows such a threat to lone agricultural workers?

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Think of a cow – you are probably imagining a docile black & white creature with big eyes chewing some grass. That’s a typical Holstein Friesian, one of the most popular breeds of dairy cattle because it can produce on average a prodigious 7,600 litres of milk a year. They may look harmless to you but they weigh around 700kg (about the same as an adult Grizzly bear) and can easily knock down an adult person.

Being trampled by cattle is not just painful – it can be deadly, as the tragic death in August 2018 of Stephen Sandys, a farmer in East Sussex, illustrates. A National Farmers Union spokesperson said at the time, ‘this isn’t an uncommon experience’, and they are right. According to the Health & Safety Executive, ‘injuries sustained while working with cattle’ was the ‘biggest killer’ in 2017, accounting for eight (24%) out of 33 fatalities in the agricultural sector. Most of those (29) were agricultural workers. 

As the report points out, agriculture has the highest rate of fatal injuries of all the main industry sectors, around 18 times higher than the All Industry rate. Despite only employing around 1% of the UK’s workforce, it accounts for around 20% of fatal injuries to workers. Other than being killed by an animal, the main risks are from moving vehicles, collapsing structures and falling objects, and falls from a height. 

The most vulnerable agricultural workers are those over 60 (nearly three quarters of those killed), and the self employed (nearly two thirds of those killed). This reflects a rapidly ageing agricultural workforce (the average age of UK farmers is 59) and the fact that many are contractors who often work unsupervised. 

Following the death of Mr Sandys, the NFU said:  “We are saddened to hear of this tragedy. There are inherent dangers in dealing with large herd animals and ideally people should aim to avoid working alone with cattle, especially bulls, although this is not always possible.” That advice not to work alone is good – but particularly hard to do in many industries, not just agriculture.

This is exactly why we created the Safepoint app – to protect workers who often have to work alone, unsupervised and in remote and potentially dangerous conditions.

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How can farming businesses protect agricultural workers? 

Douglas Armstrong was working as a temporary gamekeeper when his quad bike overturned and crushed his pelvis. His body was discovered 200 yards from the accident in a separate field – he had died crawling towards a nearby farmhouse, even opening a gate to get there. Unfortunately, he had no way of raising the alarm and no one noticed his absence for 52-hours (his employers were fined £3,000).

A mobile phone might have helped (surprisingly for a rural area, there was a signal) – but only if he had been able to make a call. As the HSE said at the enquiry, “employers need a system for lone workers to keep in touch with people.” The SafePoint app provides just such a system that is easy to use, not intrusive and doesn’t require the worker to raise the alarm if something goes wrong.

All the lone worker has to do is to enter a couple of details about the job, including how long they think it will take. Our Guardian portal then lets the employer or colleagues track the worker’s movements and safety status. It also alerts them if the lone worker fails to check in at the expected time or if the worker feels the need to raise an alert. Find out more about the Safepoint app by reading our guide to sharing responsibility for health and safety or registering for our newsletter.

Matt RumbelowComment