Hay bales: three safety considerations for farmers

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Claims Team Leader Arthur Denton outlines the three key safety considerations for farmers working with hay bales.

Over the coming months, many of our Members will be preparing hay bales, ready to feed livestock over the winter. Weighing in at around half a tonne and being highly flammable, hay bales require careful handling. While experienced farmers will understand the risks, we would like to remind all our Members of the potential dangers to ensure they handle and store hay bales as safely as possible.

  1. Protecting the public from hay bale accidents

A stack of hay bales can make a tempting, but a potentially fatal, climbing frame for a child. Sadly, there have been cases involving children falling from, or being crushed by, hay bales. The legal position regarding such an accident is complex, but put simply, farmers should be prepared for children to be less cautious on their land than adults and take steps to reduce threats to their safety. The courts would consider whether your hay bale stack could have been an attraction to a child. If it is seen as such, a child could be classified, in legal terms, as a visitor rather than a trespasser to your land. This then gives you, as the landowner, a greater duty of care towards them.

If you have a public right of way going through your land, you should carefully consider where to store hay bales and ideally remove them from the field as soon as possible. If you need to leave a stack of hay bales near a public right of way, signage warning of the danger could help deter people from climbing on it. Alternatively, installing a fence or another barrier between the path and bales could be a sensible option.

In the event of an accident, a written risk assessment will provide crucial evidence that you considered the risks to public safety and took reasonable steps to reduce them.

  1. Spontaneous combustion

A chemical process that releases heat can cause hay bales to spontaneously combust, sometimes leading to farm fires. Damp or green hay provides the ideal environment for mesophilic bacteria, which emit heat and raise the temperature inside the bale. Fires caused by spontaneous combustion typically start within six weeks of hay baling and are most likely to happen when moisture levels in the hay exceed 20 percent. Baling in dry weather is the best way to prevent this from occurring. While we can’t control the weather, baling later in the day helps to keep the moisture levels down.

With last month being the hottest, driest May on record, many of our Members started baling earlier than usual and could now get three, rather than two, cuts into this year’s bales. A longer season could mean more farmers doing the final cut in damper, early autumn weather. This may increase the risk of spontaneous combustion events later in the year.

Hay bales are often stored in timber barns, so a serious fire can spread very quickly. Farmers can ensure hay stays as dry as possible by keeping it in weathertight conditions. It is also good practice to use a thermometer to check the temperature inside the bales stays below 55 degrees Celsius.

  1. Safe hay bale stacking and handling

Agricultural workers are sometimes tragically injured and killed in accidents involving hay bales. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has detailed advice on safe stacking and moving of bales, which all farmers should follow. This covers a range of safety issues, including the risk of falling from height and guidance on using machinery to carry hay bales.

Here at Cornish Mutual, we have handled claims involving bales rolling down hills, causing damage to property and road accidents. The HSE guidance also gives detailed instructions on how to safely stack bales. This includes stacking on a level surface and building a safe and solid bale construction, using round or square bales.

There are many potential dangers involving hay bales, so it is important for farmers to keep up to date with the latest safety advice and to ensure their workers follow the correct procedures.