Farm safety grows in complexity alongside farm operations
Planning and awareness reduce the frequency and severity of incidents.
In an ideal world, a farm would be a business setting free of consequence and a symbol of management excellence. Yet the evolution within primary production has seen the tendency of larger parcels of land and fewer land owners requiring more employees to manage operations efficiently and successfully. Add in the vagaries of weather, volatile commodity markets, concerns for livestock producers about animal health and consumers’ growing influence on how farmers conduct their businesses, and the subject of farm safety takes on a greater urgency.
Farming has long had a reputation as one of the more hazardous occupations in the Canadian workforce, with the potential for injury or death from a variety of scenarios: road travel, tractor roll-overs and power-take-off (PTO) shaft threats, grain storage mishaps and dangers from entry into manure storage units. But it’s the size of the industry and the percentage of people involved that make the statistics all the more disturbing.
According to figures from Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting (CAIR), from 2011 to 2020, there were 624 agriculture-related fatalities in the country. That may not sound overwhelming until they’re measured against the oft-stated statistic of less than two per cent of Canadians being directly involved in the agri-food sector. Of those, 624 fatalities 54 per cent were related to the use of machinery, 58 per cent were the owners or operators of a farm, and 11 per cent were children.
Telling the whole story?
In 2022, the Ontario Fire Marshall’s Office reported 133 fire-related deaths, most of which could have been reduced with the use of working smoke detectors. However, since bad news sells, the spectre of death by grain entrapment tends to be more of a headline-grabber, despite only 29 such fatalities from 1990 to 2008. What’s particularly distressing though is the lack of awareness of what’s actually available to farmers when fires, tractor roll-overs or grain entrapments actually occur.
“In a world of information overload, most farm operators are probably not thinking of the capabilities and limitations of their local emergency services,” says Dave McEachren, captain and chief training officer with the Southwest Middlesex Fire Department, in Glencoe, Ontario. “There is a real need for the industry and rural fire and emergency service providers to help educate the farm operators on preventative measures and the abilities and limitations of local services.”
There is also the need for whole-farm emergency planning, he adds. In the case of grain entrapments, most rural fire departments are neither equipped nor trained for such incidents, the unfortunate result of budging constraints in most communities. The first priority –and required by law –is fire prevention. Everything else beyond that, including vehicle extractions, are dictated by budgets, staffing, equipment and training.
“Emergencies that involve livestock, grain entrapments, farm machinery entrapments, silo-gas emergencies and manure pits are all highly specialized call types,” says McEachren who is also a retired producer. “The nature of the fire and emergency services business is based on a risk versus benefit analysis. Everything we do today is measured and analyzed; we always say that we will risk a lot to save a lot, but we will risk nothing to save nothing.”
Unfortunately, that’s the economic reality of the time in which we live.
Planting versus harvest?
Most of those who work with farm safety issues have dismissed the notion of one part of the growing season being more dangerous than another. The stressors of spring planting may be different than at harvest, but the results can be every bit as hazardous. Some of the contributing factors to increased periods of injury or incidents may include how many hours a farmer is working, the length of their days, how tired they are or the stress of the season.
“One of the things we need to recognize when considering the statistics related to incidents and when they occur is that there are peak periods and slower periods,” says Reg Steward, safety specialist for the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) and superintendent of field operations for AG Safe –British Columbia. “The statistics can tilt to the peak periods having more incidents, creating a false sense of security and leading to complacency in the off season. These numbers increase because there are more hours of work put in by more people, but it doesn’t diminish the risk that exists through the rest of the year. The things that contribute to an incident in the fall are often things that’ll contribute to the same type of incident at any time of year.”
Despite increased demands on their time, it’s vital farmers and ranchers know how to read and understand the hazards and evaluate associated levels of risk in their daily undertakings. The risk factor can vary greatly; crossing a busy metropolitan street versus a remote rural road means facing the same hazard, but at a very different risk level.
“It is imperative we manage the risks that are a part of the farm and ranch reality,” says Steward. “The gold standard is to find ways to eliminate risk. But that may not be possible, so a comprehensive, thoughtful means of managing risk must be followed, also known as the hierarchy of controls.”
If an incident occurs, farmers and ranchers need to know how to respond. Preplanning and evaluating hazards and associated risk on an operation are essential. The adage, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” translates to knowing who will do what, and having an emergency plan developed and practices posted will help in any situation.
“Trained personnel can do much with little, and farmers and ranchers should take advantage of all the response training available to them,” he adds. “It’s a process that makes a lot of sense when you understand the elements of an emergency response plan, developed but before you ever need it.”
Every incident’s a collection of several incidents, into a sequence of events, much like a standing set of dominoes. Once one of them topples, it sets about a chain reaction. Eliminating any of the dominoes can affect the outcome. Consider each step in the day-to-day operations; “is it a domino” or “could this be part of a sequence of events that leads to a serious incident”? Looking for, observing, recognizing, evaluating, and managing risk are keys to safety and well-being.
“In many situations I’ve examined and encountered, ‘hurriedness’ is among the dominoes,” says Steward. “Despite a determination to be deliberate with certain actions, a person will take shortcuts, be in a rush or become complacent, all contributing to workplace injuries and fatalities. Other overlooked but contributing factors -or potential ‘dominoes’ -are the things we push through, like fatigue, hunger, dehydration, or stress, all of which can be complicit in an incident.”
Part of the job
Crispin Colvin understands how the rush to get things done –regardless of the time of year –can affect a grower’s attention to specific tasks. He refers to “getting rammy” as time seemingly runs short, with a tendency to do things quicker, and he agrees there’s no longer any one season where farm safety is more important than another, and comes at it on two fronts. First, as a Thorndale, Ontario-area livestock producer, he can be on the road even in the middle of winter, moving feed from one farm site to another. Second, as a director with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), supporting members in Lambton and Middlesex counties, he knows he must be better with his time-management.
“Where we probably see weakness is in the general road safety practice, because we’re in a hurry,” says Colvin. He cites an example of a farmer he knows who was stopped by a Ministry of Transportation official for moving a corn planter without a safety chain. “Those are the kinds of corners we end up cutting, where someone might say, ‘All of my lights might not be working on the tractor but it’s good enough’ or ‘My slow-moving vehicle (SMV) sign isn’t as bright as it should be, but it’s still there’.”
In 2022, Colvin made a presentation at a Ontario Good Roads Association meeting and said there’s an onus on farmers to do their part to be safe –to make sure they’re doing everything they can to be as visible as possible. If their lights aren’t working or their reflective tape isn’t as bright, it’s harder to expect someone else driving a car or truck to look after the safety of farmers as they travel on country roads.
Another element of “farm safety”
Beyond pricing volatility or weather issues, demands on growers to be accountable, sustainable and conscientious are ramping up, to the point where mental health and wellness is as vital as guarding against the prospect of physical mishaps. As important as messaging on road safety and grain handling is, Colvin acknowledges the tremendous shift that’s taken place in the past five years where stress among producers and farm workers has increased.
“We have less time to do the things the way we’d really love to be able to,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons we pushed both levels of government to work with us, so our farmers can get some mental health supports or phone a counsellor and talk to them. It’s all covered under the government wellness program, and it’s geared to farmers. That was a big step to get it geared to agriculture.”