The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has identified the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector as high risk for health and safety incidents. For instance, there were 21 fatal injuries to sector workers in 2022- 2023, with 9,000 workers sustaining non-fatal injuries at work averaged over the three-year period 2020 – 2023.

In this update, we've noted three recent HSE prosecutions demonstrating the way in which health and safety breaches can occur within the rural sector.

First, on 15 May 2024 HSE announced that a farming business in Surrey had been fined after a worker suffered serious injuries when five hay bales (each weighing 60kg) fell on him. The bales had been stored on a layer of pallets to keep them off the barn floor which was damp. When the worker was removing the pallets, the bales fell on him. The HSE investigation identified a failure to secure the bales by keeping them 'tied in', as well as a failure to implement safe working methods for unstacking bales. The business pled guilty to breaching regulation 10(4) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

The view of the HSE was clear: "Health and safety is a fundamental requirement of a sustainable farming business yet over the last 10 years, almost one person a week is killed and many more are seriously injured as a result of agricultural work." and “Even with the considerable financial stain on UK farming, prioritising health and safety not only ensures workers are kept safe but also improves well-being and health outcomes alongside supporting productivity and efficiency on farms.”

Second, on 22 May 2024 HSE announced that a farmer had been given a suspended custodial sentence (a sentence that does not exist in Scotland so if this had been a Scottish incident, a term of imprisonment may have been ordered). The sentence followed an incident in which the farmer's cattle trampled a man (who died) and a woman (who has been left paralysed from the waist down). They had been walking on a public footpath when they entered a field containing cows and calves. The couple were attacked and trampled by the cattle. The HSE investigation found that the farmer had failed to ensure that the risks to members of the public were controlled, including that, where possible, cows with calves were suitably segregated from the public footpath. The farmer pled guilty to breaching section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. HSE noted their views on the incident: "This tragic incident could easily have been avoided if basic precautions had been taken by the farmer. Readily available HSE guidance states that, where possible, cows with calves should not be grazed in fields where there is a public right of way. Where this is not possible they should be segregated from the footpath by appropriate fencing where it is reasonable to do so.”

The third case relates to a breach by a waste management company. We are conscious that rural organisations will often contract with waste management companies and accordingly should be aware of the risks posed by the waste manage process. In the case, a waste management company, New Earth Solutions (West) Limited, was fined £200,000 plus costs following an incident in which a worker suffered burns to his face and body after the crowbar he was using came into contact with a live electrical conductor. The HSE investigation identified several breaches, all of which resulted in a guilty plea by the company in relation to a contravention of section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974:

  • The task was not part of the normal workload for the injured worker, and he had not received any training in relation to electrical work.
  • The task had not been properly planned or risk assessed, and the electrical cables were not isolated before work began.
  • The level of supervision provided was inadequate.
  • Safety devices on the electrical supply had been set inappropriately, prioritising continuity of supply over safety of the electrical circuit.

The message for the rural sector is clear – health and safety remains a key risk. Steps to manage that risk should continue to be a key priority for all businesses operating in the sector. Failure to properly manage the risks can result in enforcement action, and, in some cases, a significant fine and / or custodial sentence. With more individuals being prosecuted for health and safety breaches, a custodial sentence is now a very real possibility.

For advice on health and safety, please contact Clare Bone, Ramsay Hall or another member of the Health and Safety team.

Contributors

Clare Bone

Partner & Solicitor Advocate

Ramsay Hall

Legal Director