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Worker Safety - Make It a Priority

Chuck Schwartau

Published in Dairy Star April 8, 2006

Nearly everyone on the farm has had a close call at one time or another with an accident related to livestock handling or machinery operation. Some have been little bumps and bruises, and others may have been serious enough to make the person involved really think "What if...?"

According to National Safety Council (NSC) statistics for 2002, agricultural workers experienced 21 deaths per 100,000 workers. That was second only to mining which had 29 deaths per 100,000 workers. Deaths are only part of the total cost. The NSC calculated in 1999, that disabling injuries to agricultural workers cost $3.9 billion and fatalities another $700 million. Combined, that comes to $4.6 billion lost due to farm accidents or $2420 per farm.

From reports compiled in 2003 by John Shutzke, University of Minnesota Extension Safety Specialist, 1 in 5 farms in Minnesota experienced a serious injury. That equates to serious injuries on 13-14,000 farms.

What are the sources of these injuries? There are some gender differences in this area. For women on the farm, 50% of the injuries were caused by livestock. For men, 25% of the injuries were from livestock and about 23% from machinery.

With that brief background, what should farmers be doing to make their farms safer places to work, for both family and hired employees? Safety should be a priority issue on all farms. Profitable production is important, but if those profits are wiped out by an accident, it really doesn't make any difference. Everyone on the farm needs to be working toward a culture of safety.

The people on the farm need to realize the owners are concerned about their welfare and that everyone has a partnership stake in creating the safe workplace. Bernie Erven, professor-emeritus, of Ohio State University, suggests there are four ways to build that partnership:

  1. Create a culture of safety values. Creating that culture means talking about safety frequently. It means emphasizing the well-being of your workers is important to you personally and to the farm business. Creating the culture means teaching by example - work safely yourself.

  2. Training is essential. Some safety topics require extensive training programs while others may be addressed with impromptu discussions and demonstrations when hazards are observed. One technique is called "spot training" where quick lessons on safety are offered right at the time and place of a task that has special hazards involved.

  3. Make sure workers know how to perform their normal jobs safely and that doing a job safely is more important than doing it quickly. Employers may want to include a section about safety in their employee handbook so workers have it as a reference when needed. When you observe a worker doing something in an especially safe manner, make positive comments about it. Don't assume that one-time training will be adequate. Procedural drift is a common occurrence. Even when a person has been taught a skill and starts practicing it, it is very easy to slip back to old habits in time. Retraining and refresher discussions help bring the procedure back to the desired state - a safe one.

  4. Involve everyone in finding and reducing hazards on the farm. Get everyone in the habit of doing one of two things when they observe any situation that may be hazardous - repair it or report it. Larger repairs or corrections to work habits should be reported to the appropriate person in the management team so they can address it quickly. Quick and little fixes can prevent a major breakdown (whether it be equipment or procedures) later. Immediate corrections will probably be less expensive as well. Empower employees to make changes themselves if it appropriate, and sincerely thank them for the report if someone else needs to make the correction. This helps bring them into the safety partnership on the farm.

  5. Use progressive discipline to enforce safety. When hazardous practices are observed, they demand immediate attention to minimize the chances of that practice becoming a bad habit. Warnings should be immediate, consistent and impersonal. Criticize and correct the practice the first time without sounding threatening to the individual. If a practice is repeated, a progressive discipline is recommended. The first warning should be verbal; a second incident warrants a written reprimand. The written reprimand should include the warning that repeat offenses could result in suspension or probation and even discharge. A progressive policy should also include measures that enable the employee to effectively 'clear the record' after a time of acceptable performance. If they are corrected, mistakes don't last forever on an employee's record.

Whether they are family members or hired employees, the workers on your farm are important cogs in the system. Help them realize their importance and value. Make them partners in operating a farm that is safe for them and others that come onto the farm. Your efforts with them can pay large rewards in little work time lost to injuries, lower workers compensation insurance rates and more satisfied workers.

Don't be a contributor to that $4.6 billion loss to agricultural injuries.

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