From Host.Madison.com, “Serious about farm safety” by Jane Burns, 31 May 2011.
Cheryl Skjolaas’ morning routine is something that can either make or ruin her day.
Over a cup of coffee, Skjolaas fires up her computer and pores over news from around Wisconsin, hoping that no news is good news.
Skjolaas is an agriculture safety specialist for UW-Extension, and each day checks to see if there has been a farm accident somewhere in Wisconsin.
“It’s always a bad day when you start out learning about an ag incident,” Skjolaas said. “I don’t want to see that we’ve lost another member of our agricultural community.”
Skjolaas and other farm safety experts and consultants throughout the state have been busy these days, but not because there has been a rash of accidents. In fact, the latest farm fatality figures show a sharp decline from previous years.
Yet, because agriculture is in transition, so is farm safety. Larger farms require a larger workforce, some of whom speak Spanish or had no prior ag experience. New technologies and methods present new hazards.
And, because of the increased size of dairy operations, the federal Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration is becoming increasingly involved in recognizing a farm as a workplace subject to the safety standards of other industries.
This year, OSHA plans to begin random inspections of dairy operations in Wisconsin for the first time. Safety isn’t new for farmers, but OSHA compliance is.
“It’s probably something they’ve never addressed in the entire management of their farm,” said Mary Bauer, a compliance assistance specialist from OSHA’s Eau Claire regional office. “Now they realize they need some time, and they need some money, to be compliant and to do it right the first time rather than trying to put a Band-Aid onto it.”
Bauer, Skjolaas, insurance companies, local Farm Bureau chapters and other organizations have been hosting safety events to inform farmers of what OSHA compliance means and how it may or may not differ from what they already are doing.
“They’re definitely willing to try to find the solution,” Bauer said of dairy farmers. “Usually you have to drag people kicking and screaming to talk about safety, and these have been very well attended.”
Farming a dangerous profession
Farming has always been a dangerous profession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics rates farming and ranching fourth in workplace fatalities with 38.5 per 100,000 workers. (Fishing was first with 200.)
“We know there are some known hazards and dangers, but at the same time, we haven’t had that OSHA presence,” Skjolaas said. “There’s been a lot of feeling of, ‘Well, what does this mean to us?’”
When OSHA began enforcing workplace safety in 1970, most farms did not fall under its watch because they employed 10 or fewer people.
But farm operations have grown in the state. In 1998, there were 1,800 farms in the highest sales class of above $500,000. In 2010, there were 4,100.
“In the past, it was a small family operation and the kids all grew up on it and understood what was going on,” said John Quirk, marketing director for Rural Mutual Insurance. “Now you get high school kids to help with milking or chores and they may not have any experience.”
Difference between OSHA, LEP
Random OSHA inspections will happen once a Local Emphasis Program is in place. While OSHA has had authority to inspect farms when there has been an incident or complaint, the LEP differs because it is random. Bauer expects no more than 20 random inspections to be conducted.
An LEP is put in place when an accident or a pattern of accidents creates cause for concern within an industry. The 2009 death of a Hispanic dairy farm worker in Dunn County who drowned after driving a skid steer into a manure pit was the incident that triggered the LEP that is being drafted now.
An LEP is in place for commercial grain facilities, sparked by the 2010 deaths of two Illinois teenagers working at a grain elevator.
Fitchburg dairy farmer Pat O’Brien said safety should be important, no matter the size of the farm.
“You spend a lot of time investing in your employees and you want to keep them, but mostly they are human beings,” said O’Brien, who was rescued after being buried in a corn crib in 1991. “A healthy, happy employee is a good employee, and farmers have got to have that attitude.”
Because of the 2009 Dunn County accident, Bauer said OSHA is looking into the safety of manure pits, as well as the challenges presented by a Hispanic workforce. A 2009 study by the UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies says immigrants account for 40 percent of the state’s dairy labor force, up from 5 percent 10 years earlier.
“Hispanic workers have a higher fatality rate, so we’re really looking at new hires,” Bauer said. “It has the potential to become a really nasty situation if people aren’t getting the training at a level they can understand.”
New and old dangers
Risks continue to evolve, Skjolaas said. Horizontal bunker silos present new hazards such as equipment rollovers or falls from the bunker wall.
Skjolaas said she saw a decrease in bull-related fatalities after farmers began using artificial insemination. But, she said, in the down economy, some farmers stopped artificial insemination and brought bulls — and the risks associated with them — back to their farms.
Tractors remain a farm’s greatest risk, although rollover protection (ROPS) has been standard since 1976.
The power takeoff (PTO) on machinery continues to be a danger, for clothing or limbs to become entangled in moving parts.
“We’re still dealing with machines that are designed to chop, slice, shell corn and move waste products out,” Skjolaas said.
Heather Benson, spokeswoman for Landmark Services Cooperative, said the co-op will host a safety session in August.
Younger generation safety-focused
Trends in grain operations are creating new risks, Benson said.
“With the bigger yields and the bigger harvests, there are more bushels to store, more to move, more to put in or take out of an auger,” she said. “There’s just more happening than there was five, 10 years ago, but we still have to do it in the same amount of time. Mother Nature still gives us the same window for double the bushels.”
Skjolaas and UW-Extension agents have been visiting farms to consult about safety. Quirk said Rural Mutual’s loss control staff will inspect policyholders’ facilities if requested.
WisCon, a program through Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene offers on-site safety or hygiene consultation to employers at no charge.
Skjolaas said she sees farmers wanting to learn more about compliance, and not just because they fear OSHA.
“I think the younger generation is saying, ‘We’ve seen our parents work hard, we see a lot of value in that, but I want my body to last and we want to have a good business,’” she said. “They see a value to safety and health. They want to know, “How do we do it and how do we do it right?’”