Northern Ireland has been plunged into grief this weekend on the back of Saturday’s terrible farm accident near Hillsborough in County Down.
Three members of the Spence family including Nevin, a high profile Ulster rugby player, lost their lives in a slurry pit. A fourth member of the family Emma, is recovering in hospital.
This only serves to underscore how close death can be on the farm.
I was reared on a small farm. My wife was reared on a farm. Farming runs in our blood.
When still a young boy I recall stepping on a sheet of galvanised iron on a patch of ground while visiting a neighbour’s holding. It gave way and I ended up buried in faeces. Unknown to me the family had dug a latrine in their garden. I was hauled from the pit and thoroughly doused in disinfectant of some nature.
I could easily have turned out to be one of those statistics published annually about accidents on the land.
I recall too the day my father, having cut down a tree in the plantation beside our home, dropped it from his shoulder killing ‘Teddy’ my sister’s dog.
It was worse than a death in the family.
One of our local publicans was Hughie O’Hanlon who was a big sheep farmer. Hughie once told my father and other customers about the day he had to climb a tree to escape from a pack of bloodthirsty dogs which he attempted to ‘break up’ as they attacked his sheep.
Hughie, a former celebrated GAA footballer in Armagh, regularly wore a pair of long Wellington boots about the farm. According to his narrative he heard the commotion out the farm and moved immediately to disperse the marauding dogs as they worried the sheep.
He recounted “they turned on me” and realising he was in real danger he beat a path to the nearest ditch and took refuge up a tree.
I recall my excitement as a young reporter chomping at the bit to do an interview with Hughie – ‘the farmer who climbed a tree to escape the dogs.’
Any reporting of that story all those years ago would have been deemed a ‘farm accident’ as far as my father was concerned. He was a low key discreet man.
The above anecdotes go to show how the most casual events on the farm can have far reaching consequences.
Farm accidents result from, attacks by animals, slurry pit incidents, drownings in tanks, slurry gassing, falls from a height and from use of unsafe machinery.
Government reports show older farmers are more vulnerable. This age group continues to be involved in the day to day running of farms.
Health and Safety advises high risk jobs should be left to someone younger and to those with the appropriate expertise.
There were 12 deaths as a result of farming accidents in Northern Ireland last year. According to HSE statistics, deaths in farming accounted for 50% of work fatalities in Northern Ireland between 2007 and 2011.
Between 2009 and 2011, farming fatalities accounted for 57% of all work-related deaths – and for 60% of work-related fatalities in 2011 alone.
The UK’s largest rural insurer has highlighted its growing concern regarding the number of serious farm accidents taking place in Northern Ireland.
This is borne out by claims figures – which show that the number of serious accidents on NFU Mutual members’ farms increased from 5 in 2007, to 12 in 2008, 15 in 2009, 18 in 2010 and 21 in 2011.
These claims have totalled £28.6m for the four years from 2007 to 2011.
The Mutual’s chairman Richard Percy has been speaking to Farming Life about the close links which the company has with the farming community in Northern Ireland and he underscores his staff’s awareness of the devastation a death or serious injury can have.
“As a mutual insurer with strong links to our farming members in Northern Ireland, we’re very concerned about the continuing high numbers of farm accidents.
“Northern Ireland is a tight-knit farming community and the impact of these tragic accidents has a profound effect on the families of the victims, and across the neighbourhood.
“We’re determined to do everything we can to help farmers work safely and are using the experience we have developed to highlight the main causes of farm accidents and promote safe working procedures.
“A farm accident is more than a tragedy for the individual directly involved: it affects that person’s entire family circle and their business.
“Thankfully, modern medicine can do wonderful things when it comes to saving lives and improving the quality of life for those involved in accidents. But the core challenge remains that of preventing accidents from happening in the first place.
“Farm buildings, machinery and livestock all pose their own respective accident threats. But the biggest factor adding to the potential for accidents to happen is the ‘rush’ factor.
“Everyone involved within farming today is continually striving to pack in as much work as possible into a working day, which- for many -can extend beyond twelve hours. All of this reduces ‘thinking time’ and leaves farmers and farm workers more disposed to the option of taking shortcuts.”
It is too soon to speak of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the members of the Spence family.
Needless to say the thoughts of every right thinking family is with the Spences in their hour of sorrow.
A tribute to Nevin Spence the player: