A Welsh beef and sheep farmer who needed five hours of surgery to save his thumb after it was hit by the 200kg hammer of a fencing post driver is urging other users to follow important safety guidance to prevent accidents involving these machines.
Alwyn Watkins farms with his parents, Nigel and Gwen, at Pantglas Farm, a 210-hectare, upland farm at Bwlchysarnau, Rhayader, and also works off-farm as a contractor, including erecting fencing.
In May 2023, he was replacing fencing on a field boundary on a hillside, using a post driver.
He admits he was rushing to get the job done and hadn’t carefully considered the implications when a stake snapped and he reached for it without moving the arm and weight of the driver out of the way.
“I was wearing a fencing pouch and as I went to grab the stake the pouch was flung up by the wind and it hit the lever that sends the weight downwards.
“My thumb was on the stake and the weight came down straight on top of it.’’
The bone in his thumb broke in five places and the skin covering it was split open, exposing the bone.
Surgeons worked for five hours over two operations to save it.
“They had to pull the bone out and clean it because they were afraid of sheep muck being on the bone and causing infection,’’ recalls Alwyn, who spent three days in hospital.
He fully expected to not regain use of his thumb but fortunately he has almost made a full recovery.
“When I took the dressing off, I couldn’t believe my eyes, my thumb had healed really well.
“It is never going to be right but it is somewhere near.’’
The accident has left him with poor circulation in that area of his hand.
“First thing in the morning that thumb feels really cold,’’ Alwyn explains. “I’ve got two quad bikes and one has a thumb warmer so I try to use that one, it seems to help quite a lot.’’
Although the accident was serious, Alwyn considers himself lucky that he didn’t damage his entire hand or arm.
The accident not only had an impact on his physical wellbeing but on his business too. The family usually rears 20,000 pheasants for Bettws Hall Sporting Club but with Alwyn out of action that job had to be cancelled.
“It was a total nightmare to be honest,’’ he admits.
Alwyn, who is 28, has reflected on what happened and has some important rules he now lives by.
“I was in a total rush because I had so much work in front of me but from this experience I have learned to slow down when I am fencing, it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been rushing.’’
His message to other farmers is similar. “Take your time when you are using a post driver, and when something doesn’t go to plan push the weight out of the way. It’s about using common sense I suppose, I didn’t and look what happened.’’
Alwyn has been working with Farming Connect and the Wales Farm Safety Partnership to raise awareness of the dangers of using post drivers, including featuring in a video with Brian Rees, a farmer who is also a trainer and mentor in health and safety at Farming Connect.
Brian says these machines can be “extremely dangerous’’.
“As stated by the manufacturers, they can kill – in fact someone was killed this year as a result of a head injury sustained when they were using one – so it is really important that people use post drivers safely, are vigilant and read the safety handbook.
Appropriate training in the use of a driver is advised, with some manufacturers able to provide training for specific models.
Mr Rees advises that there are a number of safety points to consider:
- Make sure that the machine is fully checked over before use. This should include the structure of the machine, all safety devices and guards, all hydraulic pipes and controls. Check that all pins and brackets are secure.
- Do a risk assessment. “This doesn’t need to be anything complicated, just have a little think about what you are doing,’’ says Brian. “Think through any potential risks concerning the equipment you are using, including the site you are working on and the competence of all concerned in the operation.’’
- As with all machines, make sure that you understand all the controls, exactly what they do, and the moving parts on the machine, so that you don’t accidentally push the wrong lever.
- When adjusting the machine, be very cautious of the trapping zones. This is particularly important when the forward and the side tilting mast are moving. Also, the slew arm can cause a trap zone as you are slewing it around the back of the tractor and the main frame.
- When the machine is working, keep your body and any limbs well away from the moving parts.
- Never ever hold the post in place when it is being driven.
- Check the condition of the pulley rope as it can be prone to fraying.