by Jay Girvin, Esq., Girvin & Ferlazzo. P.C., Albany, NY
- What steps can I take to improve farm safety?
A farm is not a hazard-free work environment. Farm workers are routinely exposed to a variety of hazards that may present a risk of illness, serious personal injury, or even death. Every year, thousands of farm workers are injured and hundreds more die in farm-related accidents, making agriculture one of the more hazardous industries in the country. These accidents are not only costly to the individual worker involved, but may also result in associated costs to the farming operation — for example, increased worker’s compensation insurance premiums, loss of production, and in certain circumstances potential civil liability or fines. While it may not be possible to completely eliminate all risk of injury or death, there are a number of sound measures that farm employers can implement to greatly improve agricultural safety.
A good first step would be to review the overall farm operations and identify the particular hazards associated with each worker’s role in the operation. Does the employee regularly work with heavy machinery, equipment, or hand tools, including tractors and other farm vehicles? Does the employee frequently handle livestock? How often is the employee called upon to work in, on, or around locations such as silos, grain bins, manure pits, or ponds? Is the employee often required to handle dangerous chemicals or pesticides? Is the employee frequently exposed to electricity, toxic gases or vapors, or extreme heat or cold? Understanding the nature of the hazards inherent in each step of the farming process is essential to developing policies and practices aimed at minimizing those hazards.
Farm employers should ensure that each of their employees is adequately trained to perform his or her job in accordance with good safety practices. The training should include a specific discussion of safety hazards, as well as the proper operation of any tools, equipment, or machinery that the employee will be required to use. Employees should be provided with, and required to read, operator’s manuals and safety information provided by manufacturers, and should demonstrate their competence before being allowed to use such equipment unsupervised. Employees should also be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment and trained on proper use. Depending on the hazards involved, such equipment might include basic items such as gloves or boots, or more sophisticated specialized safety equipment such as eye or hearing protection.
All machinery, tools, and other equipment should be maintained and regularly inspected to ensure that they are in good condition and proper working order, with all machine guarding and other safety features in place. Farm employees should not be permitted to use equipment on which guarding or other safety measures have been removed, disabled, or otherwise rendered inoperable. Since safety technology is always evolving and improving, farm employers should periodically review older pieces of equipment to determine whether they meet current industry safety standards.
Providing employees with job training and safety instruction is of little benefit, of course, unless employees actually follow that training and instruction in practice. Farm employers and their management personnel should therefore regularly supervise their employees’ job performance to make sure that safe practices are being followed and that safety equipment is being used. Employees found to be engaging in unsafe works habits should be promptly counseled and retrained as to the proper practices. An employee who is persistently unable or unwilling to adhere to safety rules is a liability — to both himself and his employer — and should be separated from employment. Concomitantly, farm employees should be specifically encouraged to bring safety-related concerns and suggestions to the attention of management without fear of reprisal or negative consequences.
Farm accidents can — and will — occur despite the best efforts of employers to minimize potential work place hazards. If an accident occurs, thoroughly investigate the incident to determine what caused the accident and use that information to evaluate whether any potential changes should be implemented. If the accident was attributable to human error, what was the source of that error? Was the employee properly trained? Was the employee correctly using appropriate safety equipment? Did the employee deviate from required procedures? Is there a way to modify the way the job function is performed so as to reduce the risk of an accident? While any accident is unfortunate, it does present an opportunity to re-examine existing farm practices, to make changes if appropriate, and to re-engage employees on the subject of safety.
Employee attitudes toward workplace safety often mirror how employees perceive the attitude of management. If a farm employer is viewed as lax regarding safety, or as placing a higher value on worker productivity or efficiency, employees are more likely to “cut corners” in their own work habits at the expense of safety. Conversely, farm employers who consistently and strongly communicate that safety is a priority are often rewarded with employees who place a similar emphasis on safety both in their own work and in that of others.