On “Supposed To”

My boys are mostly grown now, but when my oldest was seven years old, he and his brother were supposed to be playing in the yard while their dad was mixing feed. Instead, my son decided he wanted to go tell his dad something. So, he ran out to the feed alley directly behind the feed mixer to get him. Since he was completely in a blind spot, my husband began backing the feed mixer up. Before my husband knew what happened, the feed mixer had knocked my son to the ground, ran over his back, and stopped on his elbow.

Thankfully what could have been a much more tragic situation left my son with a collapsed lung, bruised ribs, and a week-long stay in the critical care unit at Hershey Medical Center. The only reminder he has today is a scar on his left elbow. Still, even 15 years later, my middle son likes to remind us that he told his brother, “We were supposed to stay in the yard.”

For the past few years, the Center for Dairy Excellence has partnered with Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania to encourage farmers to share their near misses at our events and meetings. Hearing their stories is a way of reminding everyone how important it is to remember to work safe on the farm. So many of those stories have somewhere in them the phrase, “supposed to.”

“The manure pit vent was supposed to be opened.” “The loader safety bar was supposed to be latched.” “The PTO shaft was supposed to be off.” “The pressure valve was supposed to be released.” “The bull was supposed to be tame.” Unfortunately, “supposed to” is a little like the phrase “almost.” If “supposed to” doesn’t happen, it doesn’t make a difference in the end.

National Farm Safety and Health Week is September 19 – 24. The National Education Center for Agricultural Safety plans this week each year in September because the fall harvest is one of the busiest times of the year on the farm. It’s also a time when a lot of accidents occur on the farm.

Sadly, the statistics don’t lie. According to the US Bureau of Labor, farming is one of the most dangerous professions today. In 2019, 573 people died from farm accidents – or the equivalent of 23.1 deaths per every 100,000 workers. Unfortunately, many farm accidents involve kids, with around 100,000 children under the age of 20 injured each year on the farm. Many accidents happen simply because those involved do not stop and think about being safe.

Here are some ways to keep farm safety top of mind on your operation.

  1. Develop BMPs and Protocols. Having best management practices related to safety written down and reviewed with all employees and family members can remind everyone to stop and think, saving themselves from a potential injury or accident. Protocols should be written for working with cattle, with equipment, and with chemicals and other potential hazards on the farm. Those protocols should also be posted near areas where farm workers are likely to be performing those tasks, so they are not forgotten.
  2. Have a Plan. Do your employees know what to do when an emergency occurs? We have all heard tragic stories of when one farm worker approached a situation and made it worse by putting themselves in harm’s way. Write down your plan in case of an accident, a fire or any other type of emergency, and share it with your employees and your family members. Make sure they know where fire extinguishers are and what to do to ensure their own safety as well as the person involved in the accident. Unfortunately, there have been too many instances where one person going in to save another resulted in multiple deaths. Remind your team that it’s just like an airplane – you can’t save someone else without first making sure you are safe.
  3. Create a Safe Culture. When I worked at Land O’Lakes, every morning I walked by a sign that shared how many days the Carlisle plant was accident free. When they hit certain milestones, like 100 days or 500 days, the staff would be invited to celebrations to reward their commitment to safety. This is something that could easily be incorporated into any farm culture. Think of ways to remind your employees and your family members how important safety is – start every meeting with a safety share, post the number of days you are accident free, or personally recognize employees you see taking extra steps to be safe. The little things you do will create a culture of safety that will resonate in fewer accidents and a safer team.
  4. Consider an Audit. Third-party groups are available to come in and audit your farm to identify areas that could be unsafe. Often those audits will bring to light potential hazardous situations that you didn’t see on your own. You could also contact your local extension agent and ask if they’d be willing to come out and walk through your farm. Your nutritionist or another key advisor may also be able to help you evaluate your operation as well. Or consider having a neighboring farmer who you know prioritizes farm safety walk through your operation and share their observations with you. Having that outside perspective involved in developing your safety plan can ensure you’re doing everything possible to be safe.

If you are interested in enhancing your protocols around farm safety, there are a host of resources available. The National Education Center for Agricultural Safety has webinars you can watch and farm first aid kits you can purchase. You can visit their website at necasag.org. OSHA also has an agricultural safety fact sheet that outlines potential areas to address farm safety. Those can be found at osha.gov/agricultural-operations. Penn State Extension also has some great resources at extension.psu.edu/business-and-operations/farm-safety.

The Center for Dairy Excellence has several farm safety resources available on our website as well. The first is a set of farm safety signs that you can use to create awareness around potential danger zones on your farm. You can request these signs at no cost at www.centerfordairyexcellence.org/request-farm-safety-signs. We also have short, 60-second videos to remind your employees about farm safety. These are perfect to share at a team meeting or in the breakroom. They can be found at www.centerfordairyexcellence.org/farm-safety.

Unfortunately, the phrase “supposed to” will not save you from getting hurt on the farm. But having good safety protocols in place could prevent an accident from occurring. If you want to access the materials above but don’t have Internet access, just call the Center office at 717-346-0849. We’ll be happy to help you get the resources you need to stay safe on the farm.

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence.