With the current financial squeeze in agriculture, many have reduced their labor force and, therefore, asked for more work from fewer people: themselves, employees and their own family members. They are putting in longer hours, working alone more, and maybe doing jobs for which they were not trained. But what are the real risks of this?
A farmer friend called me at the Michigan State University Extension office to talk the other day. He saw the problem immediately when he read an article about the risks to children working on farms and recognized the risks to his children who work on the farm.
The article contained an awful statistic from the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, 33 children are injured every day on farms. If that wasn’t bad enough, another statistic stated that a child dies in an agriculture-related accident approximately once every three days!
These terrible facts weigh heavy over the agricultural industry. For those who have been through the horror of a child’s death on the farm, they are more than just statistics. In my career, this has happened on farms in my area more than once. It is time to re-examine safety, for our children, employees and even ourselves.
The reality is that accidents happen to many. The current situation has pushed people to the limits. On many farms, employees are working tired. People are over-stretched and that is when accidents are prone to happen. While current economics are bad, there are tremendous costs related to farm accidents: to lives, financially, to worker morale and in time and productivity. These costs are far greater than what you save by trying to operate with fewer employees.
But we can’t hire our way out of this problem. It is not just about having another person to take the load off of others. Safety is an everyday issue and an every year issue. It is not just an issue when times are difficult. Is safety on your farm a core value or just a cost of doing business?
Do you involve your employees and family in developing a farm culture of safety? Do your employees and family have a voice in safety? Do you walk around the farm with them and identify work operations or areas that could cause injury or illness if safe procedures are not followed. Do you have safe procedures written down? Are you accessible if workers or your family members have a question relating to how to safely perform a task? Here are some things to consider in developing a farm culture of safety.
Train more. Safety training should be a regular part of your employee development program. Involve employees in a discussion about the safety risks involved with a certain task and ways to reduce that risk for everyone.
Take time to talk with employees about safety around cattle. Teach them how to handle cattle well and how to avoid being kicked, run over or pressed up against an immovable surface.
Train them in equipment operation and remind them about safe work practices, such as bucket riders, that are not allowed. The evidence of bent gates tells me that greater care is needed with equipment operation. Teach them about PTO shafts and the importance of PTO shields. Train them to shut everything off before doing anything on equipment. The time saved by not doing that will come back to haunt you.
Talk with employees about the dangers of silage piles and the potential for partial collapse. Remind them about safety around manure pits and with chemicals. Provide the tools and the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to do things safely, from a distance and without endangering their hands or feet. Make sure they use the tools and select and wear PPE properly.
Pay special attention to children. Most farm kids have grown up operating equipment while they are young. Yet, in spite of their experience, they are often not fully capable of good decision-making or responding appropriately or quickly enough in an emergency. We need to rethink when our children are old enough to bear great responsibility. A newly revised guide for age and farm tasks can be found at cultivatesafety.org.
Training should be repeated. In regard to youth, cultivatesafety.org says correct procedures should be demonstrated four to five times. However, as important as it is, training is only one aspect of developing a culture of safety on the farm. Schedule breaks for employees who have been working non-stop. The time they rest will more than be paid back by greater productivity and safety afterwards.
As you walk the farm and talk with employees, gauge how alert they are and whether they are fully engaged in their work. Look for signs that indicate they need help or relief or even when they should be sent home. Reinforce the rules against drug and alcohol use that would impair their performance in any way. The risks to life are too high.
Safety needs to start at the top, with the owners. You need to consciously build a culture of safety and practice it yourself. The day after the call from my friend, he called back. This time, he had just left the hospital ER because he had been injured. As he related how it happened, I understood that it could have easily happened elsewhere to farmers, employees or even their children. It is time to be more proactive about safety for everyone.