Agricultural Safety Practices
Farm work can be dangerous work. In 2012, 374 work-related fatalities occurred on farms, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which means the industry has a fatality rate significantly higher than most other industries. Additionally, approximately 167 farm workers experience lost-time injuries daily.
Many farms do not fall under OSHA’s jurisdiction, so the strict safety rules and regulations applied to other industries are not necessarily enforced at all agricultural work sites. That doesn’t mean safety should not be prioritized, though. On the contrary, safety on farms needs attention because many times the people killed in farming accidents are young workers (some under the age of 15).
To focus attention on safety hazards on farms, agricultural workplaces and the general public can observe National Farm Safety and Health Week this week. The goal of this week is to raise awareness about safe farm practices, especially since harvest season is approaching, which is often when more accidents occur because more people are at work on farms. For National Farm Safety and Health Week we will take a look at the most common work hazards on farms and ways to alleviate those hazards.
Common Agricultural Hazards
According to OSHA, most accidents during farm work involve machines, and in many cases, tractors are the culprits. Farming equipment often has moving parts, which can be sharp and dangerous. Tractors can easily roll over, resulting in serious, often fatal, accidents. In some cases, tractors are even involved in roadway accidents because they travel fairly slowly and other vehicles may not see them in time to stop or avoid a collision.
Other significant hazards on farms including grain-handling accidents where workers in grain bins get buried in grain, chemical exposures (often from pesticides) and electrical hazards.
Workers should also be aware of hazards involving dust, hand tools, lifting, livestock handling, manure pits, mud and ponds.
Make Farms Safer
Proper preparations like machine guarding, personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety training all play a role in reducing the risk of farm accidents. Let’s examine some safety precautions to help prevent common types of agricultural accidents.
Machine Guarding and Maintenance on Farms
In industrial work environments, machine guards are required in locations where employees could be seriously injured by the moving parts of machines. Machine guards can also protect employees on farms, many times significantly.
One key piece of machine guarding farmers should consider is a rollover protection structure (ROPS), which is a frame or other protective device on a tractor to provide protection for the operator in the event of a rollover accident. Rollovers are common because tractors often operate on uneven ground. NIOSH reports that in 2012, only 59 percent of tractors had ROPS installed on them, but if more tractors had ROPS, many injuries and fatalities could be avoided.
Farmers should consider installing other types of machine guards around any piece of equipment that could pinch, crush or otherwise injure an employee during use. The goal is to prevent workers from reaching or getting pulled into places where they could be seriously harmed.
Additionally, regular maintenance work should be scheduled for vehicles, machines and electrical systems. Keeping everything in good condition is imperative to avoiding needless accidents.
Visibility for Vehicles and People
In any work environment, it is important for drivers and pedestrians to see each other, even in low-light conditions. Too many back-over accidents occur in construction, and many also occur on farms.
Generally, it’s best to perform work during daylight hours, but sometimes that isn’t possible. In those cases, reflective tape can be used on both vehicles and people (where it can be applied to clothing) to make everything and everyone more visible. Bright safety vests can also be worn by farm workers, too.
Vehicles like tractors often must drive on roadways, and when they do, regular traffic is often moving much more quickly. Weather conditions might make it difficult for drivers to see tractors, so make sure all vehicle lights are operational, use hazards lights and consider using an escort vehicle. Bright—not faded—slow moving vehicle signs should also be placed on the back of farm vehicles.
Safety Signs and Labels
Farms aren’t exactly easy to label like manufacturing facilities or warehouses. Workers are likely working in different parts of the fields each day, and there are few floors and walls to post safety signs on. There are some steps you can take to make safety more visual in the workplace, though.
First, try posting safety labels on dangerous machinery and vehicles. Warning labels can alert employees to hazards, and instructional labels can help prevent problems.
Second, post safety signs where you can. If you have a building where workers leave their belongings or check in at the beginning of the day, use the opportunity to convey safety information.
Third, make sure your chemical labels are clear and up to date. Many farms use chemicals like pesticides and herbicides, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other governing bodies regulate these substances. Pesticides will likely arrive on site with GHS labels that include information about hazards, handling precautions and health information. Your workers should know how to read these labels and interpret the information. Farms should consult the EPA’s Agricultural Worker Protection Standard for information about the use and handling of these chemicals in the workplace.
PPE for Farm Workers
The kinds of protective equipment needed on farms vary by task, and safety gloves, boots and clothing may all be involved. Chemical handling, for example, may require a certain type of glove, while picking crops may require another.
Some work tasks take place in dangerous locations like grain bins. When a worker needs to enter a grain bin and work above the grain or stand on grain, he or she should wear a body harness and lifeline because the grain can move and cover the worker, acting like quicksand. If a worker is engulfed in grain without wearing a lifeline, the survival rate is only about 20 percent. OSHA explains how and when workers should use lifelines.
The weather can also play a large role in worker safety. If it’s hot outside, cooling clothing may be needed. If it’s cold, extra layers are likely in order. Farmers will need to evaluate the conditions on the farm at the beginning of the day in addition to the tasks that will be performed to determine what types of PPE workers should wear.
Finally, make sure clothing itself isn’t a hazard. If farm workers are near machinery with moving parts, loose-fitting clothing can get caught. Avoid wearing loose-fitting clothing, drawstrings, jewelry or anything else that could get tangled.
Farm Safety Training
All the safety precautions listed above can go a long way to help keep farm workers safe, but without proper training, many of these precautions won’t be nearly as effective as they need to be. Workers need to learn how to properly operate farm vehicles and equipment, read safety labels like those on chemical containers, handle dangerous materials and use personal protective equipment.
In some regions, many farm workers are temporary workers hired just for harvest or planting. In these cases, the workers will be unfamiliar with the safety practices employed on the farm and will need to receive appropriate instructions before beginning work.
More than 1.8 million workers were employed full-time in agriculture production in 2012, and many other farm workers were employed seasonally. These workers face serious hazards on the job. This week and every week farms should focus on preventing injuries, illnesses and fatalities.
For more practical information about farm safety, visit the U.S. Agricultural Safety and Health Centers’ YouTube Channel.