Preventing fire hazards on the farm

Gloria Hafemeister, Correspondent
Farmers can do a lot to make sure their farmsteads are safe. Warning signs are important.

JUNEAU - Anyone who has suffered through a barn fire, a severe storm or a farm accident knows it is much more than a financial loss. It is also an emotional loss.

Agriculture is risky business. The result of natural or man-made hazards can result in significant replacement costs for buildings and equipment, production interruptions with attendant revenue losses, workforce disruptions, and even loss of life.

Sherry Taylor and Sabine Voight of the Wisconsin Reinsurance Corp. recently spoke with members of the Dodge County Forage Council about ways farmers can help to prevent losses. Wisconsin Reinsurance Corp insures mutual insurance companies to make sure they will remain in business in the event of significant losses among their clients.

Among the common risks facing farms is fire. According to the U.S Fire Administration, on average, 20,000 agricultural-related fires cause $102 million in direct property losses and result in 25 fatalities each year. Electrical makes up about 40 percent of fires that occur on farms, according to Voight.

Farm fires typically are slightly more expensive than all other industrial fires because the commercial value of crops is affected along with the property.

Prevention is key

Fire risks vary significantly depending on the crops or livestock being raised, the size of the operation, and geographic location. Farmers need to make sure that buildings on the farm meet recognized standards and codes, and incorporate the latest fire protection technologies.

Voight says, “Our goal is for you to think about if any of these things are an issue on your farm.”

Check electrical boxes and make sure there are no exposed wires.

She went on to list recommendations for ways to be proactive in preventing fires.

  • Remove highly flammable and combustible materials and accelerants where possible. Document the location and nature of those that cannot be removed. Provide a list of stored hazardous materials to your fire department and update regularly.
  • Train and conduct fire drills for employees and family members to define who will do what to in the event of a fire.
  • Stress the importance of everyday maintenance and housekeeping in preventing fire.
  •  Prohibit smoking around flammable and combustible materials.  Post signs and enforce “No Smoking” bans in barns and around machinery and combustible and flammable materials.
  • When constructing new buildings or repairing existing buildings, meet requirements of the latest National Electric Code (NEC) or local codes if more stringent. Use qualified electricians who meet state and local licensing and certification requirements. Also, it is a good idea to keep them a safe distance from others to prevent the rapid spread of fire.
  • Where barns or other farm buildings are 50 feet or less from one another, regularly cut vegetation between them and maintain a cleared area of five feet from these buildings.
  • Use approved fire doors on farm buildings.
  • Periodically inspect all wiring and electrical motors and appliances for exposed wires, broken insulation, fraying, and indications of wear or rodent damage, proper grounding and installation. Where a problem is suspected, have electrical installations and wiring inspected and approved by a licensed professional.
  • Make certain electrical panel boxes have clear access, are put in areas free of excessive dust and moisture, remain at a safe distance from any combustibles, are weather-proof and are constructed with corrosion-resistant materials where required by the NEC.
  • Protect wiring by encasing it in metal or PVC conduit pipe where required by the NEC.
  • Limit the use of extension cords.
  • Cover light fixtures with dust and moisture resistant covers, and incandescent bulbs and heat lamps with globe cages as appropriate for the environment where placed.
  • Use only UL or other listed and grounded appliances.
  • Use only electric motors that are designed for the tasks and conditions in which they are used.
  • Make certain overhead lines are sufficiently high if using tall farm equipment such as combines and grain augers.
  • Install and maintain lightning rods and grounding cables under the supervision of a professional contractor.
  • Use only heating devices and equipment which is designed for the environment in which it is placed.  Uses approved heating equipment and keep it in good repair.  Do not store paper, rags, or trash near heating devices.
  • Place heaters out of traffic flows and areas where paper, rags or trash is stored, and be sure they are equipped with tip-over protection and thermostats and are properly vented.
  • Protect heat tapes and tank heater cords so that pests and livestock cannot damage them.
  • Keep machinery clean and free of combustible materials, particularly engine compartments where machinery fires often start.
  • Keep appropriate fully charged fire extinguishers on tractors, combines, and near all farm machinery.
  • Welders and cutting torches should only be used in clean areas at least 35 feet away from any flammable and combustible materials. Welding curtains should be used.
  • Store vehicles and machinery in buildings separate from those used for other purposes.
  • Clearly mark and store flammable liquids in approved containers in well-ventilated areas away from heat, sparks, combustible materials and other potential ignition sources.
  • Keep all ignition sources away from combustible materials. Do not store materials such as hay, straw, grains, fertilizers or pesticides with machinery or near any type of electrical or heat source.
  • Post and enforce “No Smoking” signs around hazardous or flammable material.
  • Locate above-ground fuel tanks at least 40 feet away from buildings; liquid propane storage tanks should be placed according to code.
  • When transferring flammable liquids from metal containers, bind the containers to each other and ground the one being dispensed from to prevent sparks from static electricity.
  • Store hazardous products such as herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and fertilizers according to manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Clean up spills right away and keep oily rags in a tightly covered container.
  • To prevent spontaneous combustion, cure hay to the proper moisture content before baling.  Check stored hay to make sure there is no heating and, if necessary, use a probe to check inside temperatures.
  • Make certain upright silos do not have air leaks.
  • Remove highly flammable vegetation from within at least 5 feet of residences and farm buildings.
  • Have a plan for evacuating livestock in case of a fire. 

  Taylor states, “We also want you to think about liability on the farm. Think about the areas where negligence could cause an injury or death.”

She mentioned things like “trip and fall” incidences due to leaving things lay around and accidents that occur because equipment and electrical systems were not in safe working order.

When it comes to other liability issues she said it is important to talk with the insurance agent to be sure about what is covered on the farm policy.

“If you have a side business or if you do spraying or manure handling for someone else, be aware of what your policy covers,” she said.