Keeping farms safe
By Jack Rubinger Graphic Products Inc.
Jan. 28, 2013 - Modern farming is a dangerous business. In 2011, it was ranked the second most dangerous industry, behind construction, mining and quarrying, according to the National Safety Council. One often overlooked strategy of improving farm safety is visual workplace communication—in other words, using labels and signs to show where hazards exist and how to deal with them.
Labels and signs are types of visual workplace communication. In general industry facilities, visual communication is used virtually everywhere. Safety labels and signs reduce the chances of a workplace injury by reminding workers of the hazards around them.
Most farms, though, have not implemented strong visual communication, despite having an arguably greater need for safety than industrial facilities. One reason for this is that many farms view the installation of signs and labels as a relatively unimportant goal and not worth the cost and effort. Another reason is that many smaller farms aren't required to meet OSHA standards, which is where a lot of the push for hazard communication comes from for larger organizations. And a third reason may be a lack of dedication to improving safety in general.
There are bright spots in farm safety among a few organic farms.
"We follow all OSHA regulations at JR Organics," said Joan Marrero from JR Organics.
"Most of our signage revolves around food safety and first aid situations. With so many visitors to the farm, we need to keep the areas where we process and clean our vegetables uncontaminated. These areas are 'Farmer only' areas. We also prominently display signs where we store our first aid kits," said Bryan Allen of Zenger Farms.
"We have signs along the border fences to alert road crews that we are an organic farm and no spraying is allowed on our property," added Leland Gibson of Gibson Farms.
Most workplace accidents happen due to workers not being aware of a hazard or underestimating the danger of a hazard. This is especially a concern with young farm workers, who are often insufficiently trained and insufficiently experienced to recognize the many workplace hazards around them. It is also a concern with ESL workers (English as second language), who may not understand the training they receive if it's not in their main language.
Farm machinery and vehicles are the source of most injuries on U.S. farms, accounting for approximately 60-70 per cent of farm fatalities. A good visual communication program should start with putting labels on the most obvious hazardous areas. Examples of common places for warning labels are PTO shafts, machine guards, augur entry points, moving blades and electrical components.
"Our tractors are the most dangerous vehicles on our farm. They are pretty stable but can roll over. Their high horsepower and low gearing can break implements without the driver even feeling it. The roto-tiller attachment for the tractor could kill a person quickly. It has a few safety labels on it from the manufacturer," said Wyatt Barnes from Red Wagon Organic Farm.
A lot of farm equipment is purchased second-hand, especially on smaller farms. These pieces of equipment may lack basic components, including labels. For used farm equipment, because it may have some strange operational quirks or malfunctioning components, it is especially important to make sure its hazards are easy to understand.
Besides directly marking the hazardous areas, labels can also be used to communicate important notes and instructions to your workers. Example: place a label on a PTO-driven grain augur that has a short set of instructions on how to safely attach and detach the tool. Or, place a note by a tractor's ignition to remind the operator to turn off the PTO drive or lower a grain augur before moving the vehicle.
"The chain saw is the most dangerous piece of equipment. A person with no experience and knowledge can cause serious injury or death to themselves or others. High up on the list are bush hogs, sickle blades, hay balers hay rakes. Safety guards and warning are all over these machines for a reason," said Gibson.
Some farm safety issues aren't as easy as others to label, although a few cautionary signs might help alert workers to a concentrated methane zone resulting from manure. Excessive methane inhalation is not just unpleasant -- it can be a health hazard.
Fortunately, university agricultural extension programs offers suggestions about using covers to minimize odor and gas emissions from manure storage, the impact of wind speeds, prevailing wind direction and topography (hills, valleys, trees) on odor dispersion.
These are just a few examples of label uses that could improve a farm safety program. There are no real limits to visual workplace communication. Every farm is different, with unique procedures and unique workforces. To optimize a farm safety program, it's necessary for farm managers to brainstorm the safety issues that are most important at that specific location.