Michael Purcell remembers before and after the accident on his farm in Old Leighlin, Co Carlow, that almost killed him in 2009 – the moment he realised he was “in bother here” and the one, seconds later, when he lay pinned under his overturned tractor still unsure if he was going to survive.
He had been putting silage in a shed, driving back and forth over the growing mount to compact it, “with an old tractor that had no cab on it and what happens is”, he says with a rueful laugh, “you roll away and go near the edge, thinking ‘I’m grand, I’m grand’ – I’d been doing this for years – and you keep going back and forth but you forget that you are going up and up.
“So then at one stage I was rolling and I came back near the edge and I just felt the tractor moving and I said to myself ‘I’m in bother here’. Before I knew what happened, the tractor fell over, turned upside down and caught me under it.”
From that point on, he recalls, he was very, very lucky. First because there were two contractors there, cutting the silage he had been moving to a silage pit in his cabless tractor as their vehicle was too tall to get in under the roof. They helped to pull him out immediately after the accident and phoned the emergency services.
Second because a trailer and wall had stopped the tractor rolling more fully over on to him.
And then because the internal bleeding he suffered as a result of the impact slowed or stopped for reasons he still can’t quite explain. “I felt like my stomach was filling up just as if I was eating a big dinner, I had no idea why it was happening but then it stopped and that was the only thing that saved me because the ambulance took 20 minutes or so to come.
“When it arrived, the two lads said I should do the lotto, because I’d win that day I was that lucky.”
Still, he had sustained a pelvis broken in two places and spent the next three months laid up, relying on family and neighbours to look after the farm, before having to learn to walk again, driven on, he says, by the prospect of walking his daughter Marie down the aisle a few months later.
Michael has since put in a new, larger silage pit without a roof, so the process is a lot safer these days.
His accident back then, though, is pretty typical of the sort of incident that kills farmers, their family members and sometimes their workers. Farm vehicles, mostly tractors but quad bikes and trailers too, are involved in almost half of fatal incidents and though Michael was not in the age group at the time, almost half also involve men over 65.
“I was probably pushing it, it’s a risky business and really you need good men on machinery now but the age profile of farming has gone through the roof and whether it’s machinery or livestock, it’s unpredictable. You have farmers in their 70s and 80s and they’re on their own. It’s not good.”
Older men don’t have a monopoly on the close scrapes, though. As part of the Irish Farmers’ Association’s farm safety week this year, Ella Casey, from Ballymahon in Co Longford, told of her lucky escape while working as a farmhand a couple of years back.
While agitating slurry, the machinery broke down and she left the shed for the recommended 30 minutes. When she returned, she had to crouch down to get through a gate and the fumes hit her. She managed to dial the number of someone she was working with, Keith O’Halloran, but was unconscious by the time he answered. But for the speed with which he reached her and got her out, she was told later, she probably would not have survived.
A dozen or more such stories in the sector each year don’t come with that happy ending.