It has been an incredibly busy few days on tillage farms in particular and for contractors with a brief upturn in weather generating a frenzy of field work. On top of a small percentage of winter crops still awaiting harvest, the workload is being increased by farmers trying to save straw which has being lying on the ground for a period while already playing catch-up with the spring harvest.

In addition, there is pressure to get catch crops sown, while for contractors there has been a flurry of activity around cutting silage and getting slurry applied before the impending prohibited period for spreading, which commences on 15 October. This pressure is likely to continue in the coming weeks with the forecast threatening broken weather ahead.

Fatigue-related accidents

Unfortunately, the risk of accidents is significantly heightened because of fatigue. Evidence links operator fatigue and many accidents involving tractors and machinery. The Health and Safety Authority says there is a link between chronic fatigue with physical and mental symptoms and encourages people to learn and become aware of the characteristics of fatigue. They list the following signs:

  • Frequent yawning or blinking.
  • Slower reaction times.
  • Difficulty making correct decisions – “too tired to think”.
  • You complete tasks in the wrong sequence – such as not completing the “Safe Stop” before dismounting a tractor or harvester.
  • Forgetfulness: you forget key steps and procedures.
  • Your physical ability is lower.
  • The HSA advises better planning of the work cycle, which is to be commended, but this frequently goes out the window with weather interruptions. For others, this time of year also means labour availability is often limiting as part-time workers head back to college. The HSA highlights that adequate nutrition and staying well hydrated will help to manage fatigue while stimulants like coffee may provide a short-term reprieve to chronic fatigue and help to improve concentration and awareness but that the only cure for fatigue is proper rest.

    Working late at night

    Poor visibility is compatible with fatigue and leads to an even greater risk of accidents occurring. Machines working at night should possess suitable lighting to allow the operator to clearly see what he is doing. Where contractors are coming on to lands or into yards to do work, it should be clearly pointed out if there are any risks such as overhead power lines, electricity poles, etc. Any dips or hollows in fields should also be documented along with any other safety concerns that may be relevant.

    Higher risk from slurry gases

    The concentration of gases produced by the decomposition of slurry in storage are particularly high where slurry has been stored and decomposes over a number of months with gases trapped under a crust. The addition of silage effluent to slurry is also said to increase the risk of gas being produced. Therefore farmers agitating tanks in the coming weeks should be especially cautious.

    Hydrogen sulphide is the deadliest gas produced and can kill in seconds as people rapidly lose their ability to smell it at higher concentrations and quickly succumb to rapid confusion, dizziness and collapse. The fact that it does not readily disperse and lingers where there is no air movement makes the risk even greater. Other gases released include ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane and while these are environmentally important they do not pose the safety risk that hydrogen sulphide does.

    The first 15 to 30 minutes is the highest-risk time frame for gases. People should refrain from entering sheds during agitation and never enter a shed for at least the first hour after agitation. Taking steps to promote maximum ventilation such as opening doors and agitating on a day with good air movement will also help. Ideally, someone should also be informed when agitation is commencing so that they can follow up if required while all others present on the farm should be told in advance.


    Drowning in slurry may not appear to present a significant risk but unfortunately drowning in covered or uncovered tanks, lagoons, etc, is high risk, with children keen to explore and particularly at risk.

    Access points should be kept covered at all time, while dogs and cats should be kept away from tanks and buildings where agitation is taking place. This is because there have been many accidents or near misses in which people have entered farm buildings to get animals out.