Better safe than sorry when working in agriculture


There is no denying that serious and sometimes tragic accidents can occur on or off the farm when working in the agricultural sector.

In fact, the Health and Safety Executive ('the HSE') has reported that "agriculture has the worst rate of worker fatal injury (per 100,000) of all the main industry sectors, with the annual average rate over the last five years around 21 times as high as the all-industry rate".

These incidents come about for various reasons, including the mismanagement of large and heavy machinery on the farm, insufficient care being taken when operating agricultural transport on the public highways and exposure to things like asbestos, dust or debris, to name a few.

For those operating their business in the agricultural sector, this topic is particularly important: not only because employees are exposed to risk, but, in common with other employers, health and safety legislation is engaged, and breach of the myriad of rules and regulations could lead to an expensive criminal prosecution.

Key Points

  • Offences will be established where there has been an exposure to risk – not merely that a failure to take certain steps has caused an accident.
  • Risk needs to be assessed on an ongoing basis.  It is not going to be sufficient to draft a risk assessment and leave it at that.  Monitoring for effective understanding and implementation is critical.
  • Maintaining an audit trail to demonstrate why certain risk mitigations are reasonable (or not) will be equally important, so that the HSE can see that suitable thought has been given to all matters.
  • Maintaining clear records of what has happened, and when, will aid compliance with reporting obligations in the event an accident happens.


Responsibilities of the employer

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 ('the HSWA') is the overarching piece of legislation when it comes to health and safety.  Most of the other regulations in this area flow from this act.

Under the HSWA, an employer has to ensure that its employees are safe at work. Employers must maintain a safe working environment, ensuring plant and machinery are safe to use and that training is provided to make sure employees know how to handle the equipment safely.

Regulations exist to deal with issues such as falls from height, collisions in the yard, exposure to asbestos and others. For example, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to ensure arrangements are in place to control health and safety risks, such as training of its employees, as well as undertake risk assessments to identify any health and safety hazards in the workplace.

As the above suggests, the health and safety legislation in place does not only apply to accidents themselves, but crucially, it also applies to any exposure to such accidents or other health and safety risks. This is something that is sometimes overlooked – and when it is, it can lead to serious consequences for an employer.

Failure to comply

Where an employer fails to comply with health and safety regulations, this can give rise to both criminal and civil liability. Not only can the HSE or the local authority bring criminal proceedings against the employer, but the injured party may also bring a civil claim for compensation for the loss caused as a result of the accident in question.

Under criminal law, the sentences and fines imposed on employers were increased relatively recently and this increase has raised the stakes in ensuring safe systems of work throughout your business. Currently, employers can face imprisonment for certain offences and an unlimited fine (increased from the £20,000 cap, previously).

As such, it is crucial for employers to seriously consider what they can do to improve their health and safety procedures and comply with legislation – for their employees' sake and their own.

What measures can employers take to ensure safety in the workplace?

There are several steps an employer can take to keep its employees safe at work, as well as keeping in line with the health and safety legislation. We set out some of these steps below:

  • Maintain a written health and safety policy.
  • Regularly carry out risk assessments to identify potential hazards to those working in the business and those who could be affected by the business' operations with a view to remedying any issues promptly.
  • Provide employees with training on the use of tools and machinery at the workplace.
  • Provide training on more general health and safety procedures, such as safe lifting and handling chemicals.
  • Ensure equipment and machinery are safe for use and regularly serviced.
  • Provide employees with personal protective equipment ('PPE') and clothing relevant to the work being carried out by them.
  • Ensure that adequate safety warning signs are displayed where it makes sense to do so.

Dynamic risk assessment

It should be noted that the assessment of risk is a dynamic process.  It is not sufficient to write a detailed health and safety policy and leave matters there. A risk assessment is an essential starting point; but the process of evaluating and reducing risk needs to be ongoing to make sure the contents of risk assessments remain accurate and employees know what they are supposed to do in practice. It is crucial to continually review policies and hazards and document the same in writing.


Employers will not be required to implement every conceivable risk mitigation that one might think of – there is a requirement to do all that your business reasonably can to reduce the level of workplace risk. If something is not reasonable for your business, the HSE can work with that, providing you have explained why the measure in question is not 'reasonably practicable'.

Employers should also be alive to the prospects of being held vicariously liable for the acts of its employees acting in the course of their employment. Incidents on public highways may be caused by an employee who is operating farm transport, but the employer runs the risk of incurring vicarious liability, particularly where the employee has not been given adequate training or supervision.

When accidents happen – approach to reporting

Even with the most stringent policies and frameworks in place for the avoidance of accidents in the workplace, inevitably, accidents do happen.

Aside from the obvious step of seeking urgent medical assistance, it is important for employers to be on the ground quickly, so that they can get a proper understanding of what happened and how it came about. That way, they will be able to gain a proper overview of the situation by the time the HSE or police arrive. At this point, answers will be expected and items may be seized by the attending officials, so it is important to have a thorough understanding of the incident in the early stages.

Employers have regulatory duties to report injuries, diseases and dangerous occurrences in the workplace to the HSE. This type of report is known as a RIDDOR report. Employers should consider what their reporting duties are and act accordingly and swiftly.

Businesses are legally required to keep an 'accident book' for their employees, detailing information such as what injuries were sustained, when they occurred and how they came about. Not only are these details important as they may be needed as evidence at a later date, but they also provide employers with insight into where and how their health and safety procedures require change and/or improvement.

Employer's liability insurance is also a consideration for businesses and can be crucial, should liability arise as a result of an accident at work. It is also worth thinking about maintaining an emergency fund, where compensation becomes necessary where the employer is found to be criminally liable.

Our Top Tips

With the above in mind, our three top tips for employers are:

1. Remember that health and safety legislation does not only apply to accidents but extends to exposure to hazards as well.

2. Ongoing monitoring of a business’ health and safety procedures is essential – continuous risk assessment, training and communication are the best ways for complying with an employer’s duties.

3. Make sure to be on the ground quickly when accidents occur. It is crucial to gather as much information as possible for reporting purposes and to be in a better position to assist any attending officials and the injured party at the scene.

Lastly, for anyone in the workplace, it is important to speak up if any concerns arise. If something looks dangerous or potentially dangerous, call it out. The attitude towards health and safety in the workplace should be a serious one – and if it is, tragedies can be avoided in the long run.

Further guidance for employers

For further guidance on ways employers can work to improve and maintain their health and safety procedures, the National Farmers' Union ('the NFU') offers a swathe of useful information, such as their Health and Safety Business Guides and dedicated Health and Safety Wellbeing Hub.

The HSE's – and more generally, the UK Government's – websites offer a range of useful articles, guidance and updates on health and safety in the agricultural sector.

Lastly, in relation to criminal liability, the Sentencing Council publishes its sentencing guidelines online and these are open to the public. They give guidance on what the courts will consider when imposing criminal sentences resulting from breaches of health and safety laws.

Our podcast

Employers' liability and farming injuries has been a recent topic of discussion in our Experts in the Field podcast, where Edward Venmore is joined by criminal and regulatory lawyer, Tim Williamson, and personal injury lawyer, Pamela-Jane Riley. This article, written by Tim & Pamela, sets out some of the points discussed in the episode, listen to it here. (Please note the podcast includes graphic descriptions of injuries on farms.)