Safety doesn’t happen by accident.
Written by: Amanda Smith
Harvest is upon us…a blessed time of the year when the fruits of hours of labor and prayer pay off, and the storehouses are filled. It also one of the most dangerous times of the year for those who seek to feed the world, or just their own little community. Farm safety is a topic no one wants to discuss, its stories can be gruesome and disheartening…but maybe discussing it is the very thing that might save a life.
According to a study published by Texas A&M Extension, death rates in agriculture are the second highest among all industries, with only mining having a higher toll. These numbers do not even account for the many children under the age of 16 who work on farms, and over 100 children under age 20 who are killed in farm related accidents each year. Because most agriculture operations have fewer than 11 workers, they are exempt from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) worker protection standards, worker training requirements, and accident reporting procedures. The United States agriculture workforce is comprised largely of workers who may not have proper training on safety procedures, nor do they have the education and/or experience to know inherent safety dangers.
Small farms may be at an even greater risk than larger, more commercial operations. One of my favorite movies as a girl was “The Man in the Moon”, featuring a then little-known pre-teen actress by the name of Reese Witherspoon. Maybe you have heard of her. Reese’s character and her older sister fall in love with the same boy, after he and his mother relocate to the area to operate a farm next door. Reese discovers the young man’s mother weeping over her mangled son, after he attempts to remove his hat off of a tree limb from a moving tractor pulling an implement. It’s a gruesome scene, and one that seems a bit nostalgic given the modern advances in farm machinery. Nonetheless, on many of today’s small farms, the equation of outdated equipment and inexperienced laborers is a persistent reality. Additionally, because many small farms are secondary occupations for those running them, farm work often comes at the expense of sleep…adding yet another layer of risk.
Special populations of workers on the farm make prioritizing safety imperative. We spend hours talking to our children about safety in our modern world…everything from not talking to strangers and looking both ways before crossing the street, to not “friending” people online they don’t know or drinking from a cup at a party they have left sit unattended. Why then would we allow them to operate or be around machinery, use tools, or handle materials that are potentially unsafe without first educating them about safety?
Similarly, there are still a large number of farm workers over the age of 65 on U.S. family farms. These workers have delayed reaction times, may have impaired vision, and fatigue more quickly than others. Tractor drivers over the age of 65 are two to three times more likely to die in tractor accidents than younger workers.
Here are a few simple reminders that make a big difference in eliminating potential hazards and resulting personal injury.
- Keep the farm property tidy, with grass mowed, weeds trimmed, and any discarded items cleaned up. This will assure holes can be seen, and damage to vehicles and equipment is minimized.
- Keep chemicals and cleaning products securely stored and clearly labeled. Consider a flammable storage cabinet or chemical cabinet
- Keep an eye out for fire hazards such as exposed wires, oil and gas containers or soaked rags, electrical wires or equipment within reach of livestock or pets, and piles of overheating bedding or feedstuffs.
- Wear close fitting clothing that is appropriate for the job at hand.
- Use safety equipment, both personal and for machinery, in the way it was intended. Wearing eye and ear protection, gloves and safety masks may seem uncomfortable or a delay to getting the job done, but the damage done by not wearing them can be instantaneous or cumulative over years.
- Tractor rollover structures (ROPS) combined with seatbelts are a no brainer. Over 800 deaths occur due to tractor accidents each year, with more than half being from rollovers.
- Another absolute necessity are safety shields on all PTO shafts, and precautions to keep children away from them.
- Make sure first aid kits and fire extinguishers are on all equipment where appropriate, and readily available throughout the farm’s buildings and shelters.
- Taking special care with livestock to ensure that they are healthy and that handling equipment and fencing are in good condition. Also make sure all animal handlers are well-trained in animal behavior and safety protocol.
- Minimize fatigue by limiting hours, taking frequent breaks, and maintaining a healthy diet.
- ATV accidents may be one of the most potentially dangerous pieces of equipment on the farm. In 2014 alone, over 90,000 ATV accidents required emergency medical attention, and 385 deaths resulted. Of course, the single most important safety protocol for ATV operation is a helmet. Secondarily, instruction on proper operation, and the use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) specific to the task being performed on the ATV should also be addressed.
Many of these things may seem like common sense, but when things get rolling during busy times of the year, and life outside of the farm provides additional time demands and distractions, simple hazards can quickly become catastrophic. By addressing them in a proactive manner, on a regular schedule, potential injuries can be avoided.
Many experts agree that the biggest challenge to moving the needle on farm safety is getting farm operators to discuss the subject. Much like the original intent and mission of the 4-H program, messaging regarding farm safety often reaches home via educational programming of youth. Farm Safety days across the country work to educate rural youth about potential hazards found on farms and with farm equipment. As operations grow larger, and youth spend more time away from the farm engaged in other activities, they are less aware of potential hazards when they are on the farm. Of course it is also the hope of educators that these messages will be carried home by youth, and create dinner table conversations that encourage safety improvements on the part of adults.
It is also important for farm operators to share their experiences, so that others recognize potential risks. Messaging through farm input retailers, agriculture lending entities, and various farm-serving organizations and government agencies work to keep farm safety in the forefront of farm operator’s priorities. It is entirely possible that a coffee shop discussion of a minor farm injury, however embarrassing to the victim, might save another workers life in the future. Unfortunately, as farming becomes increasingly competitive, conversations of incidents like these are less forthcoming.
Farm safety is not a new issue, nor is it one likely to become an obsolete topic. As machinery becomes more advanced and safety features are engineered to combat common hazards, the danger of the equipment itself may decrease. However, as long as there is a human component to farm operation, there will be potential for misjudgment and mistake. Making farm safety as important as productivity may be deciding factor between a minor injury and a tragic loss.