Many farming operations across Canada are still family owned, and because of that a lot of the occupational health and safety legislation doesn’t always apply to them if they don’t have paid employees or are small-scale operations. That said, Robert Gobeil, agricultural health and safety specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA), still advises those operations to develop a basic safety management program.
“That program should include the hazards and how to control them, safe work procedures for hazardous job tasks and emergency response procedures just in case something does happen,” he says. “It could be something like fire or even inclement weather, which are things we often don’t account for, but what do you (or your employee) do if you are running a piece of equipment alone out on the back 40 and a major lightning storm hits?”
Why it matters: A basic safety management program can start with a spring safety checklist. In addition to health and safety, there’s a lot at stake, including your bottom line.
While provincial legislation may not prescribe what farm operations need to have in place, provincial safety associations and organizations like CASA can provide guidelines about what a safety program should include and help producers develop procedures and a safety program.
Make a spring checklist
A great way to start that process and to plan ahead for spring is to compile a safety checklist. “There’s a couple of reasons we want to have a checklist,” says Gobeil. “The first is to keep everyone organized and the second is for due diligence purposes. In the world of safety, if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen. You need to be able to prove that you did what was reasonable for the situation at hand.”
CASA has a spring checklist template on its website (google CASA spring safety checklist) that can help guide producers through the process, which begins with assessing any hazards specific to their operations and eliminating or controlling as many of them as they can, says Gobeil. Any hazards that remain should be included in the checklist, along with the safety and emergency procedures for managing them.
“I’m a big advocate of preparing for Murphy’s Law because it always seems to strike at our busiest times,” Gobeil says. “We want to prepare ahead both safety-wise and systems-wise, as well as control the hazards.”
What should be on the checklist?
There are four broad categories that should be included in the checklist, says Gobeil — equipment, supplies, manpower and training. Every farm is unique, but there are a few basic preparations producers and farm managers should think about, including farm and safety supplies.
Besides seed and inputs, producers should make sure they have the appropriate personal protective equipment they need for different tasks. Also, functioning and inspected fire extinguishers and well-stocked first-aid kits should be readily available. Additionally, consider the safe storage of chemicals and medications or vaccinations if there is livestock.
One thing Gobeil has seen to be counter-productive to people’s health, safety and productivity is the temptation to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’”
“We need to realize that each farming operation is different. Just because your neighbour down the road did whatever on their farm, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily applicable to your operation,” Gobeil says. “We need to have a one-off, farm-specific plan.”
Equipment and manpower
Having equipment running and ready to go is a big priority for spring time and an important item on the checklist.
“Preventive maintenance is key with equipment, not just on a production level to make sure that we can keep planting in the spring, but on a safety level as well,” Gobeil says. “Often, if there’s a defective piece of equipment, it’s dangerous to be around, whether it’s as an operator or as a bystander near the equipment.”
Manpower is always a challenge; however, producers must plan for any increases to their human resource needs at busy times.
“We need to think about how many acres we have, how much time it will take to seed and make sure we have the appropriate manpower,” Gobeil says.
Besides having the bodies necessary to do the work, it’s important the workers’ health and mental states are ready for the hectic season.
To head into spring calm and prepared rather than stressed and panicky, and to stay that way throughout the whole season, farm operators, their families and employees must stay on top of the basics.
“In spring and fall, where the pace and demand are high, fatigue factors into the equation,” Gobeil says. “You need to plan ahead and make an effort to eat well and get as many hours of sleep as you possibly can. If you have the appropriate help for your operation and the job tasks are dispersed evenly amongst everybody, you’re more likely to have more time for rest, which is critical day to day.”
Pre-spring training should also be conducted for workers who are taking on new job tasks. It’s always a good idea to refresh everyone on procedures and health and safety measures to ensure everything runs smoothly and safely.
Training on equipment operation is critical, not just for operators but for anyone who will be working close to equipment. The No. 1 source of agricultural fatalities is related to machinery. It’s about much more than wearing a high-visibility vest, says Gobeil.
“Wearing a vest makes you more visible, but not invincible,” he says. “I recommend maintaining eye contact all the time with the operator. As an operator, if you don’t have that eye contact with workers around you, you stop the machine and you do not move. It’s about having some simple processes in place.”
Another big issue on farms is working alone, which again requires some kind of plan in place in the event that someone needs help for any reason.
“If you’re in the back 40 operating a tractor by yourself, does someone know where you’re located, what field you’re in? Is there a means of communicating to you if there is an emergency?” Gobeil asks.
“Rural locations are pretty famous for poor cell reception, so instead of relying on our mobile devices, it might mean going old-school and having a walkie-talkie system with the appropriate range.”
Producers should also think about confined space entry. “I would never recommend working alone in a confined space,” Gobeil says. “By law, you need to have a trained bystander, who does not enter that confined space, whether it’s a grain bin, manure pit, seeder or what have you. They need to be available and trained in emergency response.”
Livestock handling is another area where injuries often happen if people are not aware of the dangers and are inexperienced.
Safety affects the bottom line
Ultimately, whether it’s the farm owner or worker, everyone has a vested interest in the farm being successful and profitable and safety is important to ensure that goal is achieved.
“Beyond the safety aspect, it’s about loss prevention,” Gobeil says. “If we fail to train workers for job tasks and they injure themselves, it’s a terrible thing — it’s also downtime and a loss for the farm operation as well. You want to prevent that mad scramble when someone is injured to get someone else on board, train them up and make sure they know what they’re doing to get things back to where they should have been probably a week earlier.”
Children and farm safety
And then there is the huge issue of making sure kids on the farm stay safe, especially during busy times. This can be achieved by creating safe play areas and ensuring they have adequate supervision.
“Childcare is a big concern in rural communities, and it’s often kind of tied into the lack of manpower,” Gobeil says. “Again, it’s that planning ahead and making sure the kids are safe.”
That includes educating children from an early age about what the hazards are and raising them in a safety-first culture.
“You don’t need to use big fancy words. Just say you can really get hurt if Mommy or Daddy is operating the tractor,” Gobeil says. “Tractors are big and powerful today, and that means the blind spots have increased and a small child is pretty hard to see in and around a tractor.”
Also, Gobeil doesn’t recommend any children ride on tractors — at all. “We would not encourage that anymore,” he says. “Times are different, society has changed.”
Once the kids are old enough to do some farm chores, they must be properly trained to safely handle the tasks. Even when children are capable of doing a task, it doesn’t mean they know what they are doing.
“Just like you’d train a worker, you need to train a child that much more, and be much more confident that they’re capable because they are a child. It’s easy to lose sight of that, especially with families,” Gobeil says. “We can’t assume that our kids know what they’re doing because they grew up in this environment. They may have watched you do something a hundred times, but can they demonstrate they know what they’re doing?”
CASA has Ag Youth Work guidelines on its website that will help producers assess the capabilities of kids who are working on the farm.
“We all come in different shapes and sizes, and kids and adults have different physical and cognitive abilities. Those are things you want to factor in when you’re including kids in farm tasks,” Gobeil says.