By John Shutske
Each year for 75 years, the U.S. president has proclaimed the third week of September as National Farm Safety and Health Week. This national observance, Sept.16-22 this year, coincides with the most dangerous time period on farms. In the fall, daylight hours shrink quickly. Critical field activities kick into high gear. Drivers who share public roads with large farm equipment in the fall are also at higher risk.
Many of us speak of the high rates of farm “accidents” that continue to plague our industry. The fatality rate among farmers and farmworkers remains highest in the nation — between 20 and 25 people for every 100,000 people working on farms and ranches die annually from workplace injuries. Ag is seven times deadlier than the average U.S. industry. As a farm safety specialist over the last 33 years, I sometimes shudder when we refer to these many tragic events as “accidents.”
Why? Depending on the dictionary you choose, definitions of the word “accident” include phrases such as: “unexpected”; “twist of fate”; “act of God”; or “something that happens through chance or bad luck.” Based on my past research, and many events I’ve investigated in roles at universities and in the insurance business, the deaths and serious injuries on farms are amazingly predictable. They do not happen because of chance or fate. In fact, thinking of them as “accidents” and fateful events suggests we can do little or nothing to prevent them.
Prevention is possible
One thing we need to begin to think about is a farm-level plan for safety. Nearly all other industries, including those that have dramatically reduced death and injury numbers, have done so by developing plans and programs. These plans guide daily action. Even small farms can benefit from a written safety plan, and a process to identify and prioritize hazards and the concrete actions to reduce risk. A good plan is a tool that helps establish a safety culture and expectations.
A first step to develop a detailed farm safety plan is to start with a one-page policy statement. A well-written policy involves all who work on your operation. A policy statement outlines your goals and desires to create a safe and healthy workplace. It lists the employer’s or owner’s expectations of all involved (whether family members, hired employees, your kids or others).
A well-articulated safety plan includes information about training requirements. It tells each person how they should access information like operator’s manuals and chemical labels, and how they need to use and maintain personal protective equipment like safety glasses, respirators and hearing protection. A well-written policy encourages open communication and sets an expectation that every person in the operation has a vital role to play in reducing risk and promoting healthy workplace practices. It takes a team effort! Here is a sample plan that can be downloaded and modified to fit your operation.
Developing the rest of a plan takes more time. A good workplace safety plan outlines steps and procedures to identify each specific farm hazard, and it helps you establish priorities to control or eliminate hazards. Prioritization is especially important as budgets grow tight. We often encourage farmers to consider something called the “safety hierarchy,” which suggests that it’s far better to eliminate a high-risk hazard entirely (like a tractor with a narrow front end and no rollover protection) rather than trying to simply tell people to “be careful” or “use common sense” while operating.
Using the safety hierarchy concept also requires a combination of excellent machine guarding (on PTOs, augers, pulleys, etc.), use of other safeguarding technologies (such as automatic shutoff switches or sensors to monitor conditions), and high visibility lighting and robust marking (reflectors, slow-moving vehicle emblems, etc.) consistent with state legal requirements and federally mandated design standards for all equipment on public roadways.
A safety plan must include customized, step-by-step procedures for complex jobs and tasks that vary across all farms. Tasks and activities like filling a silo, emptying manure storage or cleaning out grain bins all require careful thought and a well-designed plan, plus appropriate training and safety equipment for all who are involved.
Fortunately, many resources are out there to help. The national “eXtension” network has information and internet resources available.
Many states have small businesses and private consultants whom you can hire to help you walk through the process of developing a safety plan. In addition, many farm insurers will provide services and expertise — check with your insurance agent. The “farm accident” problem really is something we can work on together. But, it takes action — and a plan!
Shutske is a biological systems engineering Extension specialist at University of Wisconsin-Madison.