By LaMar Grafft, Safety Specialist, Iowa's Center for Agricultural Safety and Health
How much risk is too much? As you go about your daily tasks, how much do you think about the risks of your job and the consequences of those risks?
When I was a kid, we had a neighbor who helped us fill silo each year. At that time, we had a 40-foot concrete stave silo without a roof. The neighbor would go up the chute and walk around on the edge of the staves to where the blower pipe needed to be and secured it in place. That's risk. Would you be willing to take that risk? I hope not.
As a farmer, you are exposed to risks daily. After all, agriculture is the most hazardous occupation in the United States. How you perceive and respond to those risks helps to determine whether you go home safe and sound at the end of the day.
One of the biggest causes of injuries at any work site is slips and falls. Dairy farms are no different. Wearing boots specifically designed for those surfaces reduces the risk of slipping and is a must. Whether it is manure in the shed or water on the parlor floor, the results can be just as deadly. While most of us have fallen dozens of times through our lives, it only takes an instant to land wrong and suffer a broken bone or head injury that may incapacitate you for an extended period of time.
If you have worked around livestock for very long, you likely have been injured to one degree or another. Animals can be unpredictable and are not capable of thinking as humans do. They can be fine one minute and alarmed the next. Because of their relative size, cows can do harm to you just by bumping into, or stepping on you. Do what you have to in order to avoid being cornered. Remember that an alleyway gate, while seldom used, may be just the thing to keep you safe the one time you need it. Avoid sudden movements and loud noises which can startle an animal and cause it to act differently. Look for ways to avoid risk as you walk among the cows. Teach your employees how to avoid the common risks associated with being around large animals.
As a parent, I would step in front of my child to keep them from danger. In new mother cows, this instinct is even stronger and causes many injuries and deaths each year. While we don't keep dairy calves with their mothers long, mama doesn't understand or consider her role in providing milk for the nation. Watch for any sign of aggressive behavior that may put you, a family member or employee in danger. If there is any such behavior, even if she is one of your best cows, it may be time to send her down the road. The most important way to make the decision is to think about safety first and production second.
When treating sick or injured animals, it is always safer to put them in a sick pen where you can gently move them into a head gate. Just because they are in a head gate does not mean you cannot be injured. I have reviewed many needle stick injuries and broken arms from farmers who have kept their hands in the way or placed their arms through the side rails. Make sure you reduce all risk, not just the obvious one of the animal running over you.
Throughout the course of a day on a dairy, you are exposed to chemicals in feed, treatments and cleaners. It is fairly common to read only the directions on the label without paying much attention to the full list of precautions. That can be a big mistake. All of the information on the label is there to provide you with the knowledge to safely use the product. From the way the product needs to be stored, to the personal protective equipment you wear when you use it, follow the full directions on the label.
Feeding equipment can be especially risky to be around, particularly if the last time you worked on it you failed to put the shields back in place. Any exposed belt, chain or gear-driven equipment needs to be shielded. Rotating shafts need to be smooth and covered, with no protrusions to catch loose clothing or hair. With some of the equipment I have witnessed, I am surprised we don't have even higher injury and fatality rates than we do. Keep in mind how quickly equipment moves. For example, a PTO turning at 540 revolutions per minute revolves nine times each second. It takes approximately ¾ of a second for the human brain to even realize there is a problem, which means the shaft has already turned six or seven times.
Whether you have to be around unshielded equipment or not on a regular basis, it is important to keep it shielded. All it takes is an instant of exposure from a new employee, a visitor, or just a different set of circumstances that brought you close enough to it today to get caught. That is a risk that you should not take.
Nearly every farm in the United States uses tractors at one time or another. The single biggest killer on farms is tractor overturns. The single biggest prevention of this risk is a rollover protective structure. Every tractor on your farm should have a factory ROPS installed on it. Along with that protection should be a seatbelt that you USE every time you get on the tractor. By taking this simple precaution, you reduce the risk of a fatality from rolling a tractor to almost zero.
Farmers take risks every day because of who they are, how they were raised, and the things to which they are exposed. You can reduce your risks with some common sense and taking the time to think about the safe way to approach the hazards. I sincerely hope you do so.
Author LaMar Grafft grew up and farmed in Jones County, Iowa. He is a safety specialist with Iowa's Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH), a joint venture of the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, Iowa Department of Public Health, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.