Comment: Let’s get a shake on when it comes to health and safety

FAR from it being a voice ringing with bureaucratic overtones and a desire to make life as difficult as possible for farmers, it was a plea that he and his colleagues were only trying to prevent people causing themselves long-term damage.

There was also a degree of exasperation in the words of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) official after he had responded to the latest bashing from a segment of the newspaper world that loves highlighting the negative effects of legislation, especially any regulation from the European Union.

We had been discussing the implications of agriculture falling in line with other industries in the implementation of the directive on “whole body vibration”.

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For those not up to speed on this, the plan is to limit the number of hours that tractor drivers have to sit on vehicles, preventing them suffering long-term damage to their bodies.

A regulation was introduced in 2006 to limit driving such vehicles to a maximum of eight hours per day but because it was recognised that farming and forestry faced “unique challenges” they were allowed eight years’ grace in which to comply.

Although many of the very first tractors a century ago had built-in suspension, it soon slipped well down the list of priorities of tractor manufacturers as they concentrated on such vital issues as power output, fuel economy and wheel grip.

As many an old driver can testify, comfort for the person in charge of driving the machine did not go beyond a sprung steel pan seat over which an old sack was placed to reduce the chill factor of the metal on the posterior of the driver. Old-time softies would fill the sack with straw but that was that as far as suspension and prevention of vibration was concerned unless the farmer paid extra for a padded seat.

There was an early version of the bicycle which was nicknamed the “boneshaker” but the jarring encountered along a carriageway was negligible compared with driving a tractor doing a lot of field work.

Driver comfort was gradually improved during the latter half of the 20th century, mainly, it may be said,
because of the influence of tractors manufactured in the United States.

It has only been in the past decade or so, with a lot of former tractor drivers complaining about sore backs, that attention has gone back to reducing the damaging shoogle effect.

From personal experience, I find it more difficult to reach down to tie my shoelaces every morning and sometimes I think of the hundreds of hours my vertebrae were bumped over ploughed land.

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So, as far as I am concerned, improving driver comfort has been a big plus in the past decade, especially when those driving the modern leviathans are spending many, many more hours in the driving seat than their predecessors ever did.

Whole body vibration may seem like a “Eurospeak” horror but having a permanently aching back is no laughing matter. The man from the HSE completely dismissed versions of the scare story which would have reduced driving time to 30 minutes per day and he emphasised that any action taken after next July when the transition period runs out will be proportionate.

What I wonder does proportionate mean in this context?

First of all, it is only the older tractors and other vehicles that are in their sights. Anything manufactured after 2007 would appear to meet the required higher suspension standards.

As most of the tractor work on an arable farm is done by modern big beasts – these would be outwith the scope of the legislation.

That leaves the older tractors but few of those are driven for any great periods of time as these are the vehicles that bring out the seed to the field and sit on the headlands.

These older tractors are also used on livestock farms but in this latter case, the number of hours worked would rarely exceed any reasonable length of time; a conclusion also reached by the HSE when the original derogation was given.

The legislation applies to all agricultural vehicles and, therefore, some older combines and forklifts could be caught, but with ten months to go before the derogation period runs out, the Scottish Government, the NFUS and other organisations have time to agree with the HSE just what is “proportionate”.