Don’t Overlook Employee Safety

The key to safety on the farm is building quality safety plans and training employees on proper safety protocols. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Each day approximately 100 injuries happen to agricultural workers that result in lost work time, according to data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Unfortunately deaths are not uncommon in agriculture either with 417 people dying in 2016, resulting in a death rate of 21.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. NIOSH indicates the vast majority of these deaths were a result from vehicle rollovers. Farm safety is vital to all farm stakeholders from owners to managers to employees to visitors.

Sheila Harsdorf, Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, has been personally affected by farm accidents with an uncle losing his arm to a PTO shaft and a college friend losing their hand to a silage blower.

Times of exhaustion or stress, such as a late night chopping corn silage before a rain or rushing to care for a sick animal, are times when accidents are likely to happen.

Harsdorf believes that even as farms grow in size and practices change, it is still important to implement safety procedures.

“One thing that is constant is we’re making sure that we have good practices for safety, that we are aware of the potential risks and dangers, and that we practice safe farming habits,” Harsdorf says.

Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) might be a four letter word to some people, but the program has been effective at reducing fatalities in the workplace. Since 1970, all workplace deaths have dropped by 68% to about 12 fatalities per day in 2010, even though the workforce has doubled nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor.

Working on her grandfather’s farm growing up, Mary Bauer, OSHA Compliance Assistance Specialist in Wisconsin, understands the financial importance of on-farm safety.

“Safety is an integral part of that process to be profitable and produce a quality product,” Bauer says.

Farms with 10 or fewer employees don’t need to keep the same types of records as large farms because of agriculture exemptions in OSHA. However, if the dairy has on-farm processing, they would likely be held to a manufacturing standard.

Over the years as dairies have grown to include 11 or more non-family employees, Bauer has done more OSHA inspections.

Tractor rollovers and accidents with UTVs and ATVs are two areas of improvement, Bauer says. Safety equipment should be used when operating these types of machines including roll bars, seat belts and helmets.

Training is important for employees to ensure they know how to properly do their job and operate equipment. Bauer suggests an owner or manager be present when an employee does a new task or runs a piece of machinery for the first time. 

“Think of the first time you did your first job, you weren’t really good at it. You had lessons learned and you can improve on it,” Bauer says. “Safety is the same way. That first time out of the gate is your highest exposure level and your biggest chance to get hurt.”

Many injuries and fatalities could be prevented with proper training and protocols adds Connie Smith, retired risk manager and program director for the Center for Dairy Farm Safety at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

A clearly written safety policy should be in place for employees to read and in case of an OSHA inspection. “We want to have a clear written policy, so everyone is literally on the same page related to how safety should be done in your organization,” Smith says.

If there are employees who speak another language the written policy and safety protocols should be available in their native tongue. Smith does caution that employees might not be able to read in their own language so speaking to them in their own language might be necessary.

Having picture examples and offering training programs in multiple languages will also help if there is language barrier. Smith suggests doing demonstrations and then having employees demonstrate back that they know what is expected by actually doing the task.

All work places should have a safety culture and it needs to start from the top. “It has to be driven by the leaders, it can’t start grassroots or it’s just not going to survive,” Smith says.

Owners or managers should work with their employees like a coach with their team when it comes to safety training. “They have to be observing and constantly giving feedback about how to do things better. They have to analyze and they have to collaborate,” Smith relates.

Ideally, Smith would like to see dairies put the same level of attention placed on safety that is set towards cow comfort and production. 

“We want to take care of our employees so that they go home at the end of the day, as healthy as when they came in, maybe even better,” Smith says.