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Plan for Employee Safety

Dec 16, 2011

Your employees are important assets to your farming business. You owe it to them to provide a safe workplace. Develop a culture of safety on your dairy.

ChuckSchwartau photoBy Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension
The recent Midwest Dairy Expo included a session focused on being prepared for OSHA. The session covered a lot of ground but still left questions for dairy operators. Safety on the dairy farm is often missed as a topic for regular training and inspections.
A dairy farm is unlike most other workplaces because of its complexity. Worker safety is affected by equipment, weather, time of day, livestock handling, interpersonal relationships, season and a host of other factors. All these things are in play at the same time so addressing them can be daunting if one doesn’t have a plan.
Some work areas come to mind quickly when thinking about hazards and safety. A lot of machinery is moving around a dairy farm. There is a joint responsibility for those operating the machinery and those working around it to know where the other is and to anticipate the next move. Along with that goes a machine operator’s responsibility to move slowly enough to give others a chance to respond and those others around need to be aware and avoid putting themselves in perilous positions.
Recognize and remind employees of the many different hazards around them every day.
How many people think about such things as ear plugs for those around equipment all day to protect hearing? Might your feed technicians be in need of dust masks because they are dumping dry, fine material into feed mixers? These are some of the other factors that need to be considered.
In many industries, repetitive action injuries are common and a matter of great concern. A person milking cows for seven, eight or more hours a day is similarly exposed to that repetitive action injury. Look for ways to give breaks to their routine, perhaps by rotating responsibilities or doing some small things to accommodate their work with less stress. 
Determine necessary shielding and other protective actions. Have them in place and insist employees use them as appropriate.
Is everyone operating machinery thoroughly trained on the equipment they are using? 
I was once working with a program that needed a truck driver. The supervisors found a person on the job who had the proper class of license, so they made him a truck driver. After a harrowing ride with this person driving the truck, I found out he obtained his license driving a passenger van and had never driven a truck in his life. He had never been trained in a truck, and I made sure he never drove the project truck again! 
Just because a person has driven a tractor or a skid steer loader doesn’t mean he/she is familiar with the brand on your farm and comfortable operating it. Be sure they have some training and safe practice before you put them to work in your expensive barn and around your expensive livestock. If you aren’t comfortable with their skills, don’t assign them that task.
Provide training on a regular basis. Train and re-train to engrain safe practices in everyone’s mind and working routine.
Do you have a safety inspection program on the farm? This can be approached in two ways. One is to have a routine inspection on a schedule to look at specific items. The other response is encouraging employees to be on the watch for hazards, even small ones, and report them to the proper person for repairs. Taking care of hazards when they are first identified may prevent major incidents and injuries later. 
A safety planning session for your farm might start with an employee meeting where the owners emphasize their concern for a safe workplace in which employees can work with minimal fear of injury. This could also be a time to seek input from employees about hazards or practices they are aware of on the farm that make them uncomfortable. They often know the problems but are afraid to bring them up. If you solicit the input, many will share what they know and see around the farm.
Consider outside help to develop a safety plan and inspection process. There are companies that work specifically on safety planning. Ask your liability insurer about such help.
Another unlikely source of help is OSHA itself. Some might ask, “Why would I invite OSHA to my farm?” In some states the department of labor and industry (or similar agency) has programs under which OSHA staff will help businesses develop a safety plan and help identify hazards without subjecting the business to citation for violations. The key is to invite them before an accident occurs. They would much rather work with a business to prevent accidents than come to investigate an accident after the fact. Since some states are under federal OSHA operation and others have federally approved state OSHA programs, you will need to check your individual state to learn whether this option is available to your business.
Your employees are important assets to your farming business. You owe it to them to provide a safe workplace, and it is good, sound business practice to avoid accidents that could be both financially and emotionally costly to the business. 
Chuck Schwartau has been with the University of Minnesota Extension Service for 31 years. As part of the Extension Dairy Team, he focuses on workforce development and management, dairy business organization and risk management. Contact him at or (507) 536-6301.
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