A look at personal protective equipment
At the risk of sounding like your mother telling you to put on your mittens before you go outside to play in the snow – because, of course, you already know that – please take a moment to consider why wearing equipment to protect yourself while working is important. Like warm mittens against the winter cold, personal protective equipment (PPE) is your own line of defense, what you yourself can do to protect your body from the many mishaps that can occur in agricultural settings. No matter how hard you try to keep your farm hazard-free, there will be situations and places where you or your workers could be injured or worse. Not convinced you need to protect yourself from accidents and injuries? Try buttoning your shirt without using your thumbs or walking through a field or greenhouse on one foot.
What PPE is needed for farm use?
Personal protective equipment for use by farmers is designed to limit exposure to potentially harmful substances or conditions such as impact, heat or cold, harmful chemicals or dust. Various types of PPE are designed to prevent illness or injury to the eyes and face, feet and legs, hands and arms, body, ears and hearing.
In order to be effective and to make it likely that you and your workers will wear protective equipment, it should fit well and be as comfortable as possible. It should also meet safety standards. The PPE you need will, of course, change from situation to situation and from day to day. In various farming conditions, there may be flying objects, chemicals, dust, crop debris, hot and cold, excessive noise and the potential for impact, falls and compression injuries.
Your last line of defense
While PPE is important, it should be your last line of defense. First should be the environment and practices that make your farm a safe place to work. If you have employees, training and your own good example are important components. Wearing PPE and keeping work areas clean and tidy, wiping up spills, and using equipment as it was designed to be used will go a long way toward keeping everyone safe.
The whole body
For general farm tasks, do not wear clothing that dangles or is untucked or tattered. Unzipped or unbuttoned shirts or jackets, untucked shirttails, and drawstrings can get caught and have the potential to draw you into a machine. Because metal conducts electricity, jewelry (including a wedding band) should not be worn when working with electricity or heavy machinery. Long hair should be pulled back to keep it out of your work and you out of any machinery you may be using.
Everything from vests to full-body suits is available to protect the torso. These include jackets, aprons, and coveralls available in several fabrics. Choose a style and fabric to fit the job. Cotton and wool are fire-resistant fibers that adapt well to changing temperatures. For light duty, duck (a tightly woven cotton fabric) can protect against cuts and bruises from sharp or rough material. Leather is heat-resistant and is used to guard against dry heat and flame. Neoprene, some plastics, rubber, and rubberized fabric protect against some chemicals and acids. Paper-like disposable suits are important in situations where there are dusty materials or materials that can splash. A completely enclosed suit is necessary when handling extremely toxic substances.
Protection from pesticides
PPE should be as much a part of pesticide application as seat belts are to driving. To ascertain personal risk, begin by reading the pesticide label. It indicates the danger from different types of exposure such as swallowing, inhalation or absorption through the skin. Labels also indicate the protective equipment applicators should wear. Recommended PPE is dependent on the toxicity of the pesticide, the formulation (granules, liquid, wettable powder) and activity (loading, mixing or spraying). Powders and sprays used in organic agriculture may also harm the body, especially the lungs and eyes.
When handling pesticides, you should wear at least a long-sleeved shirt and long pants or coveralls. Cotton clothing is preferable to cotton-polyester blends. Disposable coveralls (such as those made of Tyvek) are adequate under most conditions, but plastic, rainwear, PVC, butyl or neoprene-coated fabric may be required for certain situations. Boots, gloves, goggles, face shields and hats (rubber rain hat or spray suit hood) should also be worn. Fabric, straw or leather hats will absorb and retain pesticides and should not be worn. Always wear goggles. Prescription lenses are insufficient eye protection. Contact lenses are permeable to vapors and gases.
Lungs should also be protected from the vapors, fumes, and dust inherent in agricultural work. Depending on the task, a dust mask or respirator may be needed. Respirators are of two types: Air-purifying, which filter dust, vapors, and fumes out of the air; and air supplying, the type firefighters wear. Air-supplying respirators require training before use. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) evaluates and certifies respirators and dust masks. A NIOSH-approved dust mask will always have two straps. Air purifying cartridge-type masks should be worn when chemical fumes or vapors are present. To be effective, the mask must fit snugly and specific cartridges must be used. PPE, including a mask, should always be worn when applying in an enclosed space such as a greenhouse.
Give me a hand
Hands are the body parts most frequently injured in farm accidents. While leather gloves are a go-to farming staple, providing good gripping power and protection from rough or abrasive materials, they may not always be the best choice for the task.
Gloves should be chosen to protect against the more common dangers to hands:
- cuts from rough materials and sharp tools
- burns to hands and forearms from hazardous substances and materials, including pesticides, herbicides, harsh detergents, paints and solvents
- fractures to fingers and wrists from incorrect or careless tool use or from augers or PTOs
- crushing to fingers when they are caught between moving and stationary objects such as livestock and fencing.
Over a thousand different models of gloves are available in the PPE market. To protect yourself and your workers, choose the appropriate gloves for the job. Leather, canvas or metal mesh gloves protect from cuts and burns. Canvas and leather gloves also protect against sustained heat. Leather gloves protect from rough objects, chips, moderate heat and blow. Although they do not provide protection while using rough, sharp or heavy materials, fabric gloves protect from dirt, slivers, and chafing. The plastic coating can strengthen fabric gloves. Coated fabric gloves, generally made from cotton flannel, are slip-resistant and may be used as general purpose hand protection. Aramid fiber gloves protect against both heat and cold and are cut and abrasion-resistant. Aluminized gloves insulate against heat and, with a synthetic material insert, can also protect against cold. They also wear well. Synthetic gloves of various materials can protect against heat and cold. They are resistant to cuts and abrasions and some diluted acids, but not to alkalis and solvents.
When selecting gloves and other gear for protection from agricultural chemicals, always check product recommendations for the substance as well as the equipment to keep the operator safe during application. All gloves should be sound and fit properly. Leaky gloves cannot protect, and overly large gloves can impede work and can be drawn into machinery.
Use your head
Experts agree that most injuries to the head associated with farming activities could be prevented by the use of a hard hat. Hard hats are lighter weight and less uncomfortable than they once were, and should be worn when operating and repairing machinery, constructing or repairing buildings, felling trees, blasting, operating off-road vehicles, or when anyone is working above you. For maximum comfort and protection, the inside suspension system should be adjusted so the hat sits squarely on the head.
Hard hats come in two styles, one with a brim, the other brimless but with a peak extending from forehead to crown. Each style comes in three classes – A, B and C – and is marked inside the hat. It is important to match the hat to the job. For general use and to protect from impact hazards and in lumbering, choose a Class A helmet. If voltage protection is needed, choose a Class B helmet, the type generally worn by utility service workers. Class C helmets are lightweight, usually made of aluminum, and offer no voltage protection. For farm use, nonmetallic hard hats offering impact protection and resistance to water, burning and electrical shock are best. Helmets with an inside suspension system provide ventilation in hot weather and can be fitted with liners for cold temperatures. Cuts or deep scratches may cause hard hats to split. Hats showing signs of degradation – brittle, faded or dull shells – should be replaced.
A face shield is a good idea when working where flying objects are present, such as when pruning or removing brush or trees. Eyes should always be protected from airborne objects, dust and UV light. Wear sunglasses.
We’re not talking roosters when we say you should protect your ears from exposure to noise. Prolonged exposure to loud noises leads to hearing loss, and hearing loss is permanent. Protection from noise is needed if you cannot hear a person standing 3 feet away talking in a normal voice. Guard hearing by using earplugs or acoustic muff-style protective devices over the ears.
This little piggie
When you’re working with 55-gallon drums, large bags of soil amendments, lumber, concrete blocks, livestock or other unpredictable or heavy materials, steel-toed shoes with steel shanks are a must. The reinforced toe protects the foot from compression or falling objects; the steel shank (midsole plate) protects against punctures from below.
Add knee pads to reduce the likelihood of injury from continuous kneeling, crawling or working on hands and knees.
PPE only works if you use it
PPE is the last defense against unsafe conditions. It does nothing to reduce or eliminate the actual hazard. Industry insurance sources report 243 agricultural workers to suffer injuries every day in the U.S. Five percent of those injuries lead to permanent disabilities. That’s not counting fatalities.
Please wear protective gear.