With plenty of dry and settled weather at the moment and children off school on Easter holidays, there is lots of activity on farms. In some parts of the country, silage cutting is even under way earlier than usual due to the sunshine and warm temperatures at the weekend.

But with more daylight hours and farmers getting busier in the fields, it is important to remember safety around the farm.

So when it comes to handling and spreading fertiliser, what are the top safety tips to remember?

Teagasc health and safety specialist Dr John McNamara outlines what to keep in mind.

Behaviour is the key to safety

When fertiliser is being spread, there is a lot of tractor movement around the farmyard. Keeping tractors and machines in check is the key to preventing many fatal accidents. This is done by adopting safe behaviours. The principle precautions with a farm vehicle are as follows:

  • Stop the engine and leave the fuel-control in the shut-off position and remove the key.
  • Apply the hand brake securely.
  • Park on level ground, where possible.
  • Use wheel stops, if necessary, to prevent a vehicle from rolling from its parked position.
  • As vehicles vary in operating procedures, always follow the manufacturer’s operating manual.
  • Good farmyard layout

    A good farmyard layout allows delivery and storage of fertiliser and adequate space for vehicles to turn. When fertiliser is being stored and spread at a location which is away from the farmyard, thought should be given to how the fertiliser is stored and filled into the spreader.

    Keeping fertiliser spills to a minimum cuts the risk of slipping or falling. Some fertiliser products are inherently slippery while others are oil-based or absorb moisture, so they can get slippery when spilled.


    Loading up fertiliser requires concentration. The safety of bystanders, particularly children and older farmers, should be given priority. The majority of childhood and older farmer farm deaths are due to tractor and machinery movement in farmyards.

    Spreading on sloping ground

    Fertiliser-spreading on sloping ground needs particular attention due to the risk of tractor overturn. Driver competence and experience is crucial for this task. The following points should be considered:

  • Your alternative land-use options for steep slopes.
  • Make sure that you are familiar with the slope by walking it before driving it. Slopes that are very wet or dry ground on which rain has fallen are particularly dangerous. Drive up and down a slope, not across.
  • Make sure that the tractor is in good mechanical condition, and preferably use a four-wheel drive tractor.
  • Select the right gear before approaching the slope. Avoid gear changes on slopes.
  • Keep as much weight uphill as possible and use front-end weights.
  • Use wide turning circles and turn uphill if driving across a slope for access.
  • Handling fertiliser

    When handling fertiliser, gloves should be worn at all times. It is very corrosive and will be very painful if you happen to have a cut or a nick on your hand.

    Dust can also be an issue and if the spreader is being loaded in an enclosed area, it is advisable to wear a dust mask.

    Big bags

    The following safety controls have been devised for big bags generally, but always follow any instructions given for individual products.

  • Always beware of overhead electrical cables.
  • Before lifting, check that lifting loops are not worn or cut. The forks or hooks being used should be smooth.
  • Bags should not be pulled along the ground.
  • Bags should not be allowed to swing against handling equipment or be left suspended for any length of time.
  • When cutting the big bag, never stand under it or cut the bottom of the bag.
  • When emptying, suspend the bag over the spreader and cut an ‘‘X’’ on the side of the bag 15cm above the base, with a long-handled knife.
  • Small bags

    Small bags require lifting. Set up the fertiliser on a trailer which is at waist height, if possible. This prevents lifting from ground level and reduces the strain caused. If lifting a bag, stand the bag upright, adopt a shoulder-wide ‘‘boxer’’ stance with your feet firmly on the ground. Bend your knees and keep your back straight, while lifting with your thigh muscles.

    It is vital to keep the bag close to your body and grip it firmly. Point in the direction of the fertiliser spreader and never twist your spine by having your back to the spreader. Ideally, training should be undertaken and alternatives should be considered to minimise lifting strain.

    ESB Networks safety tip: loaders and electricity

    When using a tractor and loader or teleporter to load fertiliser, it is essential that the area is assessed for electrical dangers. These include overhead wires if working outside and light fittings if working in a shed. If the loader comes into contact with either of these, it may cause serious injury or death. If contact occurs with any electrical supply you should not attempt to leave the machine unless there is an immediate risk to your safety due to the danger of a fire. You should stay in the cab until the electrical power has been isolated from the area.

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