Sowing the seeds of safety with non-technical skills

Researchers have created guidance materials and practical tools that aim to improve safety in the farming industry.

Farming is a very high-risk occupation with around 30-40 fatalities caused by accidents every year. This fatality rate is 18 times higher than the average across all industries, yet there remains little support for farmers in how to improve safety.

In all industries, the study of human factors and non-technical skills (NTS) is key to understanding how people perform tasks in the workplace and how their behaviour can be influenced by their environment, procedures and systems.

Many different factors come into play when examining how and why human error could occur, but it is particularly important that organisations have a thorough understanding of non-technical skills which are the cognitive (decision making, situation awareness) and social (leadership, teamwork, communication) skills that help us safely and effectively carry out technical tasks and procedures.

Introducing non-technical skills to agriculture

At the University of Aberdeen, Dr Amy Irwin had been examining NTS in aviation and healthcare until turning her focus to the farming industry. After identifying the skills used during critical incidents, studying attitudes towards non-technical skills and talking to farmers at agricultural shows, Dr Irwin identified a need for clearer guidance material and compact practical tools that could support farmers in developing their non-technical skills.

Dr Irwin and the Applied Psychology and Human Factors group at the University conducted studies to identify the non-technical skills that farmers need for safe farm practice and used the findings to develop the Non-Technical Skills in Agriculture (NTSAg) awareness and engagement programme which encompassed guidance leaflets, an online training module, a safety pocket guide and a checklist tool designed to improve safety and situation awareness for farmers driving tractors.

Developing a safety guide

The A6 pocket-sized ‘Guide to Farmer Resource Management: Safety Critical Skills’ provides guidance for farmers in an easy-to-read format that encourages them to expand their safety critical skills and offers practical tips for implementation. The guide can also be edited by each individual farmer to ensure it is relevant to them and their specific farming environment.

Explaining the rationale behind the guide, Dr Irwin said: “After spending a number of years conducting research with farmers, for farmers, I discovered that agriculture is THE most hazardous industry with 18 times the average fatality rate across all industries.

“Despite this, there is very little support for farmers in terms of developing their safety critical non-technical skills. Farmers work long hours and while we can’t reduce the number of hours worked, we can provide support and guidance to enhance these skills and make those hours as safe as possible. This guide presents the main findings of our research in terms of best practice and practical recommendations and the hope is that farmers will start to think differently about their own safety and implement small changes that could save a life.”

Engaging key stakeholders

So far, almost 1500 of the free guides have been distributed to farmers through major farming organisations such as the National Farmers Union, as well as agricultural colleges and the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).

Approximately 600 of the Tractor Situational Awareness Checklist tools have also been distributed and the tool was featured on BBC Scotland’s flagship rural affairs programme, Landward, in November 2019.

Dr Amy Irwin with Dougie Vipond, presenter of Landward

Dr Amy Irwin with Dougie Vipond, presenter of Landward

Dr Amy Irwin with Dougie Vipond, presenter of Landward

"The guide and checklist tool have had very positive feedback so far and I’m delighted that we have been able to raise awareness of non-technical skills in agriculture.

By encouraging major stakeholders to distribute the materials as widely as possible and demonstrating how non-technical skills can be used to improve safety, I hope we can create safer working environments and reduce adverse events in the future.

If we save even one farmer’s life, then the guide will have done its job."
Dr Amy Irwin


  • Hundreds of the safety guides and checklists tools have been distributed to farmers, with key agricultural stakeholders adopting the materials, giving positive feedback and sharing widely
  • The tractor checklist is being recommended for use by major organisations such as the National Farmers Union (NFU), Farm Safety Foundation (FSF), Teagasc and Lantra
  • The checklist tool was featured on BBC Scotland’s flagship rural affairs programme, Landward
  • Dr Irwin was invited to speak at Institute of Occupational Safety and Health safety meetings to raise awareness of non-technical skills in the farming community
  • Substantial reach of 1 million UK households through media engagement including STV News, BBC Scotland Newsdrive, Northsound, Original 106 FM, Tay FM, Press and Journal, The Scotsman, The Courier, Evening Express, Farmers Weekly and Landward