New harvest season, new ways to think about safety on the farm

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Corn being harvested in this file photo.

With the harvest season coming once again, it's time to remember all the steps you can take to keep yourself and others on the farm safe from the various hazards in agriculture.

Many of in the ag industry may fall into a routine where they tend to operate on autopilot, but that can be dangerous, said Cheryl Skjolaas on the Dairy Signal hosted by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. Skjolaas is a senior outreach specialist at the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health and has been working in ag safety for 30 years. Whether you've been in the industry for one year or fifty, we all need to take the precautions necessary to protect our health and safety and prevent accidents, she said.

Skjolaas said that as new equipment pieces are taken out to harvest the crops, refreshers on how to use them safely are always a necessity. Make sure to review the the operator manual before starting to chop down those crops and remind yourself of the hazards present both in and out of the cab. Harvest equipment should be treated a little more apprehensively than planting equipment, she said.

"The thing about the harvest equipment – it's more aggressive. There's more augers to it. There's more things designed to cut, chop, entangle, disperse material than what we might see with our planting equipment," Skjolaas said. "The biggest thing is every time we start with a new piece of equipment, we want to review the basics of operating that equipment."

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One thing to do is a walkaround of each piece of equipment before getting into it and kicking it into gear, Skjolaas said. Make sure there's nothing out of place, no repairs need to be done and all safety features – such as decals and lighting – are working properly. Employees, especially youth, should also learn how to do this since they sometimes may not explicitly understand the hazards associated with a certain implement.

Making a daily checklist is a great way to make sure you're ticking every box and not forgetting an important step in the safety process. Plus, Skjolaas said, remember not to take shortcuts or make up creative ways to get things done because it could easily lead to injury. Young people are especially prone to taking these risks, which makes early-life injuries much more debilitating later in life.

"When you're getting on and off this equipment ... anytime you have that ladder be sure that you know you got two hands, one foot (or) two feet as you're going up," Skjolaas said. "Using those ladders and those steps, we can see a lot of injuries ... related to people jumping off of equipment."

Cheryl Skjolaas, Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist for UW Extension stresses the importance of marking farm equipment with SMV emblems, retroreflective extremity markings and lights.

Skjolaas said road safety is always of the utmost importance, especially with roads being traveled more and more as pandemic restrictions lift. Being on the road in an agricultural implement is one of the biggest hazards in the industry, so make sure equipment is up to standard under the Implements of Husbandry rules most recently updated in 2018. Equipment manufactured in 2017 or later is also required to have working turn signals.

It's also important to remember that farmers share the road with motorists, Skjolaas said, noting that it's up to us to ensure others on the road know our intentions. Make sure to properly signal any turns or other movement, and also know the rules for your piece of equipment with regard to weights and other road regulations. Operators also shouldn't leave any substances on the road that can cause accidents, like dirt or mud.

Especially during this time of year, Skjolaas said operators should inspect fields for damage after storms or heavy winds, making sure to avoid washout areas. She also recommended knowing how to handle dry brush fires until the fire department arrive, if they're ever caught in that situation.

"As it gets dry ... the maintenance of equipment (is) really important to help clean it out to prevent those fires, and having those fire extinguishers checked, knowing their locations," Skjolaas said. "Everybody should have some practice knowing how to pull the pin, where you aim that fire extinguisher, and what are some things to do to control those fires in a field."

Skjolaas said toxic gases are also an incredibly dangerous hazard for farmers.Farmers should make the investment in purchasing a gas monitor and use it to keep lungs clean from silo gas, hydrogen sulfide and other dangerous emissions. Caution is also necessary in grain bins where many have died from suffocation. Use personal protective equipment when needed, such as respirators, she added.

Farmers should also keep track of their personal and mental health during the busy harvest season. Skjolaas recommends taking breaks when possible, getting a good night's sleep, eating well and getting enough exercise.

"I hope that everybody has a safe and healthy harvest season," Skjolaas said. "I really encourage everybody to take some action so that it is a safe and healthy habit."

Justin Wege, department chair for agriculture mechanics at Fox Valley Technical College, provided advice to farmers on preventative equipment maintenance that could save money down the line if performed a little each day. While farmers are busy people, preventative maintenance is nothing to be skipped over, he said.

"We don't have to take long periods of time to do these preventative maintenance inspections, but we need to at least spend some time doing a walkaround," Wege said. "Sometimes that five minute walk around can save us major breakdowns at this time of the year."

Wege says everyone working on a farm needs to know how to do a preventative maintenance inspection, because it could mean your bottom line if your machine ends up breaking down in the middle of harvest due to a preventable reason.

Check fluids and grease on each piece of equipment because they are vital to your machine working properly, Wege said. Also look at wear and tear on tires and other parts, especially safety features. Additionally, check cab visibility and chain and belt conditions and make sure to follow proper maintenance schedules that work for your equipment.

Depending on the operation, Wege said to make time to plan inspections during slower days rather than waiting until the last second. During harvest season, he recommends doing daily walkarounds on equipment that receives heavy use and greasing the bearings at the end of every day.

"I really think that you need to find something that works for you, and stick to it and stay with it. A lot of people say, 'Yep, we're gonna do preventative maintenance,' and they start out good. Then as the year goes on, at the end it kind of falls off," Wege said. "It really starts to take a financial toll when they start to give up on what they say they're going to do."