Agriculture is the eighth most dangerous career in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, ranked behind logging, commercial fishing, aircraft pilots, roofers, garbage collectors, steel workers and truck drivers.
Growing food is a risky field and Pennsylvania alone suffered 30 farm fatalities last year, according to Michael Pate, Penn State associate professor of ag safety and health.
Pate and Penn State Extension farm safety assistant Stephen Brown spoke during a recent Technology Tuesday webinar about how documentation, training and equipment maintenance can help farmers avoid becoming a statistic.
“Farms are unique because the primary residence is there,” Pate said. “They work and play there.”
About 44 percent of the reported deaths were related to tractors and power take-offs, and nationally there were 46 fatalities reported on dairy farms. Safety is a concern and a priority.
“We value safety because we value people,” Pate said.
“Safety around the farm and farming operation is very important as we get into this time of year. It’s more of a concern for us with all of the extra activity going on,” Brown said about the fall harvest.
In New York, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration is wrapping up its Local Emphasis Program of unannounced compliance inspections. OSHA uses four criteria as basis for inspection — imminent danger, catastrophes and fatal accidents, complaints and referrals, or programmed inspections.
Inspectors use what’s known as the “dairy dozen” for its focus areas — manure storage facilities and collection structures, dairy bull and cow behavior/worker positioning, electrical systems, skid-steer loader operation, tractor operation, PTO shields, guarding of other power transmission and functional components, hazardous energy control while performing servicing and maintenance on equipment, hazard communication, confined spaces, horizontal bunker silos and noise.
Pate said farms that have fewer than 10 non-family employees and no temporary labor camp are exempt from inspection.
“You could have a total of eight employees and three family members and still be under that exemption for enforcement,” he said.
Still, even small farms need to follow the rules that provide farmers with basic guidance and best management practices to improve the safety culture of their work environment.
OSHA requires farmers to report work-related fatalities within eight hours. Accidents that require in-patient hospitalization, amputations or the loss of an eye should be reported in 24 hours.
Establishing protocols and training employees is encouraged practice. Some basic improvements include adding backup cameras and mirrors on skid-steers to improve operator visibility, installing ROPS — rollover protection structures — on tractors, locking gates on manure storages, and keeping guards on farm equipment.
With fall harvest season gearing up, Pate and Brown said farmers need to remain aware of their work environments.
“The best way to start out is to be well rested and take lots of breaks,” Brown said. “We are working long hours, and it’s important to keep our health in check.”
Farmers should share their harvest plans with others and check in regularly. Before harvesting, check field conditions.
Take extra precautions when moving equipment from farm to field. Brown said they regularly see injuries from roadway accidents. He suggests using a lead vehicle when moving oversized equipment.
For confined spaces, Pate said there should be training for entering enclosed structures like grain bins or silos.
During and after filling silos, farmers need to beware of nitrogen dioxide, which can harm people and cattle. Do not trust sense of smell to detect this dangerous gas because it can shut down that ability. Instead, use a gas meter.
Silage avalanches occur in bunker silos that are improperly packed, the silage surface is undercut or where old silage meets new.
Pate said the Penn State Farm Safety Team can help farmers develop a safety health management plan. There are additional resources available from the New York Center for Agriculture Medicine and Health, and other dairy industry groups have established programs to improve farm worker safety.