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Farm Safety Week Guest Blog - Dr Amy Irwin, NTSAg research group, University of Aberdeen

Flying and ploughing – there are more similarities than you would think – writes Dr Amy Irwin, NTSAg research group, University of Aberdeen

For Farm Safety Week I would like farmers to think like pilots and focus on their safety critical non-technical skills.  These are the social (teamwork, communication, leadership), cognitive (situation awareness, decision-making, task management) and personal management (stress and fatigue management) skills that, alongside technical knowledge, are recognised as being crucial for maintaining safety at work.



Aviation recognised the importance of these skills decades ago after a series of fatal incidents. For example, in 1972 Flight 401 crashed into the Everglades after the crew became so focused on a malfunctioning landing light that they failed to notice the autopilot had disengaged.  This is a case of lapse in situation awareness caused by attentional narrowing – when we become so focused on one task we don’t notice other environmental cues.  Farmers might be familiar with this effect during harvest, particularly when under time pressure to get the task done – focusing on the machine or implements may lead to other aspects, such as a change in the location of other workers, being missed.  

Another factor, common to both flight and farming, is the adverse impact of distraction.  The Federal Aviation Authority instituted a sterile cockpit rule (no inessential chatter) below 10,000 feet in order to combat this effect after incidents were linked to inessential discussion and interruptions – in one example pilots cited electronic distraction as the reason for overshooting their destination airport by 150 miles! For farmers mobile phones have been identified as a major distraction when driving tractors and heavy machinery – particularly when on public roads.

So, what can farmers do to ‘think pilot’ this week? The first step is to look at safety on the farm with a critical eye – are there areas of concern? Have there been near incidents that could have resulted in injury? Now think about your actions, and the actions of any farm workers, can you identify any lapses in safety critical skills? What caused those lapses?

That may seem a difficult task, but luckily NTSAg has developed a series of practical tools, which you can download for FREE via our website (https://research.abdn.ac.uk/nts-farming/pocket-guide/) to help farmers learn more about, and assess these skills:

  • Farmer resource management pocket guide: This guide is based on five years of research with farmers and provides information and practical tips for farmers to develop the full range of safety critical skills (including situation awareness, communication and decision-making).  Enhancing these skills will help farmers to manage hazards and reduce the likelihood of injury or accident.
  • Tractor situation awareness checklist: Checklists are commonly used in high-risk industry to improve the reliability of checks and encourage communication about hazards.  This checklist has been designed with the specific aim of enhancing situation awareness, particularly anticipation of any potential problems.
We have also launched a new, FREE, app – SA Go – which allows farmers to conduct checks, and enhance their situation awareness before driving a tractor, via a mobile phone or tablet. The app also provides an overview of checks over time, highlighting key, recurrent safety issues: https://homepages.abdn.ac.uk/aphf/sa/

Set yourself the challenge of enhancing your safety critical skills this week and change the way you think about safety.  Aviation is now recognised as one of the safest forms of transport – let’s work towards making farming one of the safest occupations!

If you would like further information about any of the tools, or research, please get in touch: a.irwin@abdn.ac.uk

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