The majority of farm accidents and fatalities involve the use of machinery, and the No. 1 cause of farmworker fatalities is tractor rollovers. Rollover protective structures (ROPS) are a proven way to prevent drivers from being crushed by the machine should it invert, and they should be used on all tractors. Of course, the ROPS only works if the operator is wearing a seat belt.
As basic as it sounds, many injuries can be prevented by ensuring that operators are familiar with the equipment they’re using, either through reading a manual or learning from an experienced co-worker. Many accidents occur when operators are trying to save time. For example, making adjustments to equipment without shutting it down first, or leaving a tractor running or not engaging the brakes when dismounting – these are all dangerous practices. Knowing the clearance requirements of all equipment and the location of overhead wires in areas where equipment is operated is also critical. Penn State Extension offers an online manual, called “Organizing and Conducting A Safe Tractor Operation Workshop” (http://bit.ly/1nRaVFZ), that details the information all tractor operators should have before driving away.
Of the nearly 2 million full-time farmworkers in the U.S. in 2012, 374 died from work-related injuries.
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Poorly maintained equipment is another common source of injury, from broken safety guards that reveal sharp edges or moving parts to pistons or hydraulics that aren’t kept properly lubricated and could seize or break. Growers should follow the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions for all equipment. Old tools and equipment, along with machinery that is repaired using nonstandard methods, are particularly dangerous.
Chemicals should only be applied by trained personnel, following manufacturer’s guidelines and the material safety data sheet that comes with any hazardous material. Applicators must pay attention to weather conditions to minimize drift or blowback in order to avoid injury to themselves or other nearby workers.
The National Ag Safety Database has a comprehensive collection of online resources pertaining to farm safety and first aid at http://www.nasdonline.org.
The American Farm Bureau Federation’s Agricultural Safety Awareness Program (http://www.agsafetynow.com) offers extensive resources ranging from lightning safety to general safety checklists to equipment safety.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System has an extensive set of farm safety training materials online, including information on developing an on-farm safety management plan and suggested general farm safety rules, at http://www.aces.edu/farmsafety.
The National Education Center for Agricultural Safety has a set of fact sheets offering guidance on everything from falls to safe use of harvesting equipment at http://www.necasag.org.
“Introduction to Agricultural Health and Safety” is a free online course that provides an overview of health and safety considerations for agricultural producers, farmworkers and families in rural communities. It’s available at http://goo.gl/Y1FXKv.
Penn State Extension offers a set of training modules designed to teach farmers about basics such as injury assessment and treatment of injuries, and also offers trainings on farm rescues. Their materials are available at http://extension.psu.edu/business/ag-safety/farm-emergencies.
For children, the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin has developed the North American Guidelines for Children’s Agricultural Tasks (NAGCAT), a collection of guidelines designed to assist parents and others in assigning age-appropriate farm tasks for children ages 7 to 16. The guidelines, available at http://www.nagcat.org, include information on children’s physical, cognitive and social development, and the role these factors play in farmwork.
A big part of preventing on-farm injury is proper assignment of tasks based on an individual’s ability. A disproportionate number of injuries happen to children under 15 and adults over 65, people whose strength, reflexes and senses may all be compromised by age.
Since most accidents are caused by worker error, properly trained workers are the best defense against workplace injury. Workers also need to be healthy and well-rested in order to maintain their focus, which means reasonable break periods and access to water and bathrooms. Cellphones should not be used when operating equipment. Since it is hard to avoid working in wet conditions or in weather that limits visibility or poses other challenges, additional safety precautions must be taken in those situations.
Workers should wear protective equipment when appropriate: ear protection when working around loud machinery; eye protection when dust or other airborne particles are present; gloves to prevent abrasions; rugged footwear with thick soles; and proper coveralls and other clothing to protect from flying debris, exposure to chemicals, and even sunburn.
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Workers should wear protective equipment when appropriate: ear protection when working around loud machinery to prevent hearing loss; eye protection when dust or other airborne particles are present; gloves to prevent abrasions; rugged footwear with thick soles to avoid foot injury; and proper coveralls and other clothing to protect from flying debris, exposure to chemicals, and even sunburn. Respirators or special filters should be worn when handling pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals.
Basic Tractor Safety Tips
The No. 1 cause of farmworker fatalities is tractor rollovers, and many other injuries are attributable to improper handling of tractors. Experience driving a car does not necessarily translate to an ability to properly operate a tractor, so be sure all farmworkers are properly trained before allowing them to drive.
Modern tractors come equipped with rollover protective structures (ROPS), strong frames that extend above the operator’s position and are meant to hold the tractor off the ground if it rolls over, preventing the weight of the machine from crushing the operator. These are only effective if the operator also uses a seat belt to prevent being thrown from the seat in the event of a rollover.
Of course, the best thing to do is to avoid rolling over in the first place. This means being aware of the farm’s terrain, avoiding obstacles and debris, and being particularly careful on slopes. Avoid driving across steep slopes – try to go up and down them instead – and slow down for all turns, especially on slopes. According to the Colorado State University Extension, doubling the speed of a tractor quadruples the likelihood of turning over sideways.
The power takeoff (PTO) stub shaft, where implements are attached, and the shaft that transfers power from the tractor to the implement are particularly dangerous. Loose clothing, ropes, straps or body parts can easily become entangled in the PTO, which rotates at high speeds. Never dismount your tractor with the PTO engaged, and always leave the shield over the PTO in place to prevent accidentally making contact with it.
Do not allow riders. Tractors have one seat and are meant for a single person: the operator. Having children on your lap when operating a tractor is particularly dangerous, both for the kids and the driver.
Never attach or detach an implement or service an implement or the tractor itself while it is running. Always turn the tractor off and set the brakes before dismounting.
Never refuel a tractor indoors or while it is running. The fumes are dangerous to inhale, and could ignite easily from a spark or the heat of the engine.
Finally, while it’s tempting to try to override many of the safety features on modern tractors – shields, switches that prevent operation unless someone is in the driver’s seat, seat belts, etc. – remember that those have been added because of past injuries or deaths that could have been prevented if those features were in place at the time. Go ahead and grumble at how they might be inconvenient, but appreciate the fact that they’re there to protect you.
All farms should have an emergency plan so employees know how to respond in case of an injury. Since many farms are a long way from professional medical facilities, on-farm preparedness for basic injuries is important. Knowing how to assess an injury and treat a hurt individual until they can get to a medical professional is critical. Staff should know where the nearest medical facility is, who to call in case of emergency, and how to give medical personnel accurate directions to the farm location.
Growers should take the time and resources to train at least one on-farm employee in CPR and first aid; such trainings are often available through local Red Cross chapters or fire departments.
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According to the University of Vermont Extension, every farm’s first aid kit should include at least:
- Absorbent compress dressings
- Sterile gauze pads
- Adhesive cloth tape
- Roller bandages
- Antiseptic wipes
- Antibiotic ointment
- Scissors and tweezers
- First aid manual
- Sterile saline
- Hydrocortisone ointment
A first aid chart or Red Cross manual should also be included. First aid kits should be easily accessible to workers, and they shouldn’t have to walk a long distance from where they are working to get them. Of course, having these supplies on hand is only valuable if workers know how and when to use them. Growers should also take the time and resources to train at least one on-farm employee in CPR and first aid; such trainings are often available through local Red Cross chapters or fire departments. At a minimum, workers should know how to clean and cover a wound, and to apply pressure and elevate the wound above the heart to slow or stop bleeding.
First aid kits should be easily accessible to workers, and they shouldn’t have to walk a long distance from where they are working to get them.
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Winton Pitcoff is a freelance writer based in western Massachusetts.