Farm safety yields important, life-saving results

John Shutske
A farm is much like any other high-risk industrial workplace involving potentially dangerous machines, tractors, highway travel and other physical and biological hazards such as grain bins, silos and stored manure.

Since 1944, the U.S. president has proclaimed one week of the year to be National Farm Safety and Health Week (NFSHW). This year, as in others, the governor of Wisconsin has also done so. Marking the 78th official observance of NFSHW, the 2021 theme is “farm safety yields real results.” 

It’s not coincidental that NFSHW occurs over the third week of September. In most areas of the country, this time of year is associated with the rush involved in harvesting crops, and the extra work necessary to prepare animals, facilities and equipment for the winter, as well as other tasks to button down the farm for pending cold weather.

In addition, daylight hours are shortening, and school is back in session. Families are busy and those employed on the farm are putting in long hours. Add all these variables together and you have the recipe for a potential farming injury or exposure to adverse conditions that can impact health. 

It is true that farm safety yields results. But what does that mean? Having a “safety attitude” or being intentional about using your “common sense” is not enough. A farm is much like any other high-risk industrial workplace involving potentially dangerous machines, tractors, highway travel and other physical and biological hazards such as grain bins, silos and stored manure.

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And then there’s the human factor. Extremes in a worker’s age – whether young or old – long working hours and resulting fatigue can make it difficult for people to keep themselves out of harm’s way. 

For real results toward improving safety on the farm, here are five specific actions to take: 

BEFORE things get busy, spend several hours carefully inspecting each piece of machinery that will be operated, including harvesters, tractors, trucks and other key implements. Just as an airplane’s crew inspects the airliner before okaying it to fly across the country with passengers, follow the checklists and other recommended steps as outlined in each implement’s operator’s manual. Some items to look at carefully: 

  • wheel and tire condition and inflation pressures 
  • condition of belts, chains and other drive components 
  • placement of safety shields. If shields are missing, find them and put them in place. Operating a machine without a guard or shield while assuming you’ll remember to work around it is dangerous. 

Get enough sleep. Though sleeping eight hours a night may be overly optimistic, try to establish a healthy routine. Start your day by a specific time and aim to finish by a decent time to ensure enough sleep. Give yourself a buffer of at least an hour or two between then end of the workday and bedtime.

Put away the phone and other brightly lit digital devices; they can interfere with sleep. Also, limit caffeine intake as the afternoon stretches on. Caffeinated sleep is often restless and poor quality, and that doesn’t do much to combat fatigue which is a leading precursor to mistakes and injuries. 

Train, educate, and demonstrate. Especially where there are labor shortages, farmers find themselves hiring people with less experience and fewer qualifications. Regardless of your worker’s age, skills and background, you must provide hands-on training so each one can do his or her job safely.

All machines operate a bit differently; make sure workers know what to do and who to call if a problem occurs. This includes ensuring everyone has a smartphone or other device and a working signal. 

Light up equipment as brightly as possible. State and federal laws require a confusing mix of lights, flashers, turn signals, reflectors, high-visibility tape and slow-moving-vehicle emblems. Check with your local machinery dealer for the latest on required lighting and marking.

When in doubt, err on the side of over-doing it. When moving equipment on public roadways, if at all possible, avoid being on the roadway after dark or in high-traffic conditions. Part of farm safety is avoiding hazards in the first place versus trying to work safely in dangerous conditions.

Plan. Planning might not seem connected to farm safety but investigations show that serious injuries and deaths happen when people are in a hurry, when something breaks unexpectedly, or when machines, tools and equipment are not equipped to operate through the whole season.

Planning helps ensure things will go relatively smoothly. Plus, having backup plans in place can alleviate those feelings of panic and stress when unexpected things happen. Spending 30 or 45 minutes weekly will also help you plan around activities that involve family, communication with workers, school events, church and other happenings that continue to go on despite things being busy. 

Farm safety efforts DO yield results. Not only do you reduce risk for yourself and others, the efforts can also pay big dividends in terms of your happiness, productivity and satisfaction of a job well done and a life well lived. 

John Shutske is a professor of biological systems and engineering and is also an extension specialist at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

John Shutske is a professor and extension specialist with the UW–Madison Department of Biological Systems Engineering and UW–Madison Division of Extension, and director of the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health