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Best practice for health and safety on sheep farms

Farm accidents causing serious injury average 2,500 a year. These can lead to permanent disability and interfere with a person’s ability to far. Farmers also have high levels of preventable ill health. Teagasc Health & Safety staff John McNamara, Francis Bligh and Serena Gibbons give some advice

Main messages:

  • Farm accidents and ill health cause tragedy, suffering and long term disability. They also have the potential to jeopardise a persons’ capacity to farm effectively and hence jeopardise farm income. Therefore, it is in everyone’s’ best interests to give practical safety and health management adequate attention.
  • In 2020, up to 28th of August, 16 fatal farm accidents occurred. In 2019, 19 deaths occurred. An estimated 2,500 serious accidents take place each year on farms.  
  • Farmers have been identified as an occupational group who have a high level of Ill Health. The data available suggests that farmers need to give maintaining their health more attention, including having a regular GP check-up.
  • Considerable grant aid support for farm safety improvements is available through the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS11) up until the end of 2020. Sheep farmers need to consider how to make the optimum application for this scheme.


Farming is one of the most dangerous work sectors in Ireland. Typically about a third of all workplace deaths occur in the agriculture sector.  This year, to the 28th of August, 16 farm deaths have occurred. On average about 19 fatal farm accidents occur on Irish farms each year. Farm accidents causing serious injury occur at the high level of 2,500 per year. These can lead to permanent disability and interfere with a person’s capacity to farm effectively.

Farmers as an occupational group have been identified with having high levels of preventable ill health. Ill health effects quality of life and a person’s capacity to farm effectively. More awareness of health promotion practices are needed among the farming community. Teagasc and the Health and Safety Authority operate a Prevention Initiative to assist farmers to effectively manage farm safety and health. This initiative is run in association with the farming organisations represented on the Farm Safety Partnership.

Legal duty to complete a Risk Assessment

All workplaces, including farms have a legal duty under Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (SHWW) legislation to conduct a Risk Assessment to ensure that work is carried out safely. A comprehensive Risk Assessment Document has been prepared for use by farmers and includes a comprehensive list of possible farm hazards to be considered. The requirement to conduct a Risk Assessment replaced the requirement to prepare a Safety Statement for farms with 3 or less employees, which are estimated to comprise about 95% of farms, nationally. Risk Assessment documents are available from your local Teagasc office or can be completed online at www.farmsafely.com

Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS11)

Grant aid through the various TAMS 11 Schemes is available up to the end of 2020. Full details of each scheme are available on the DAFM web site here.  The principal areas where funding is available include: slurry aeration, access manholes; electrical installations and lighting; livestock handling facilities, safety rails and sliding doors. It is mandatory that all applicants will have completed, within the last five years prior to the submission of their claim for payment, the half-day Farm Safety Code of Practice course (given by Teagasc  or other trained persons) or the FETAC Level 6 Advanced Certificate in Agriculture (Green Cert.). Your claim for payment will not be processed until evidence of completion of the course is provided.  It is recommended that you discuss your application with your advisor, to optimise the benefit for your farm.

Safety of Children on Farms

Safety of children and Young persons must be paramount on farms. The following precaution need to be considered when children are present on a farm: provide a safe and secure play area for children away from all work activities and in full view of the dwelling house; where children are not in a secure play area a high level of adult supervision is needed. Children should not be allowed to access heights. Action should be taken to keep children away from dangerous areas such as slurry tanks; all open water tanks, wells and slurry tanks should be fenced off; give children clear instruction on farm safety issues and children to be carried in the tractor cab ( aged 7 or older) need to wear a seat belt.

Preventing Tractor and Machinery Accidents

Vehicle and Machinery related deaths account for 48% of all farm deaths. With farm vehicles, being crushed (54%) is the most frequent cause of death followed by being struck (20%), impact (9%) trapped (9%) or falling from the vehicle (6%). With machinery, being crushed (36%) or struck (46%) are the most frequent causes of death followed by machine entanglement (5%) and falls from height (5%). The data shows that most fatal accidents occur due to being crushed or struck, so safety vigilance is especially needed when in proximity to moving vehicles/ machines. Entanglement deaths and serious injuries are particularly gruesome and occur most frequently with machines used in a stationary position, such as a vacuum tanker or slurry agitator where contact can occur between the person and the PTO.

Quads (ATV’s) are valuable machines on farms for travel and certain task on farms but they have a high risk of death and serious injury if miss-used. Training in the appropriate use of Quads is highly recommended.  

Preventing Picking up Infections from Sheep

A booklet entitled ‘Staying Healthy on your Farm’ which deals with infections zoonosis or contracting diseases from farm animals is available from the Health Services Executive here 

Orf is caused by a virus transmissible to humans by contact with infected sheep. It is a common infection among sheep farmers. Infection causes skin lesions on hands, arms or face. The lesions may persist for weeks and can be itchy and painful often with  secondary bacterial infection becoming involved.  Farmers contract the disease by direct contact with infected animals or contact with contaminated objects such as fences or feeding troughs. Prevention is by:

  • Ensuring general cleanliness of animal housing areas;
  • Consult your vet on how to control the disease in your flock;
  • Consider using a live vaccine for flocks with an Orf problem.
  • Wash any known exposed area with soap and water.

Always wear gloves when working with sheep

Toxoplasma is a small parasite which causes infection in humans.  There may be no symptoms or mild symptoms such as aches and pains, a slightly raised temperature and/or ‘swollen glands’. Pregnant women are a high risk group. Infection in the unborn child is the result of an acute infection acquired by the mother in pregnancy and passed on to the baby in the womb. The result of this infection can be a miscarriage, or brain or/and eye damage in the newborn child. It is in the cat gut that the male and female parasites come together to produce one of the infective forms. If a suitable host such as a human swallows these then infection may follow. Sheep that are aborting, or lambing may also present a hazard. Prevention is by:

  • Vaccinate sheep used for breeding. One vaccination before their first breed provides immunity for life
  • Ensure hand-washing facilities are available and are kept clean;
  • Dispose of cat faeces and litter daily, remembering to wash hands afterwards;
  • Control stray cats and prevent them from gaining access to sandboxes and sandpits used by children for play. Sandboxes should be covered when not in use;
  • Ensure that pregnant women are aware of the risks.

Enzootic Abortion  is caused by Chlamydia which is a bacteria that is widespread in animals and can be transmitted to humans. The disease usually arrives on farm for the first time when infected replacements are bought-in orthrough wildlife spread. Infection spreads from ewe to ewe in infected afterbirth, on new lambs and in vaginal discharges for up to two weeks post lambing. This can lead to significant contamination of the bedding. Lambs can also be born already infected from mothers carrying the disease. This infection is a risk to pregnant women assisting at lambing due to the risk of causing miscarriage.

Precautions include:

  • Vaccinate sheep used for breeding
  • Ensure that pregnant women are kept away from lambing area

Farmers Health

A major Irish study has found that 74% of male farmers have four, or more, risk factors for cardiovascular disease. This means they are three times more likely to have an acute cardiac event (stroke or heart attack) compared to those with fewer risk factors. Up to 75% of all farmers participating in the research were advised to visit their GP to get further support and advice. A further Irish study indicated that Low back pain (LBP) was the most prevalent physical complaint occurring with 28% of farmers. As LBP-associated disability can lead to on-going pain and reduced capacity to be physically active it has been shown to be associated with other health conditions like CVD. Farmers should reduce risk factors for LBP including body weight, devising farm systems which minimise manual handling (MH) and using the correct techniques for MH.

Further Information

A key to improving farm health and safety is the genuine interest of farmers. New and current information can be downloaded at the following web sites:

Teagasc: http://www.teagasc.ie/health_safety/

H.S.A.: http://www.hsa.ie/