MARTIETTA, NY — Witnessing her grandfather die from a farm accident changed the course of Donna Hayley’s life. Now a consultant and trainer for the New York Department of Labor, Hayley was a farm girl of only 16 when she found her grandfather severely burned. His welding job ignited a fuel tank he thought was void of fumes. He passed away in the hospital burn unit from infection a week later.
From the tragedy, Hayley developed a resolve to build a culture of farm safety in New York’s farms. That’s why she spoke at a recent farm safety workshop at Volles Farm in Marietta, NY.
Hayley and her colleagues perform free farm safety audits and help farmers develop plans to prevent and respond to farm accidents.
Hayley said because spending cuts have severely curtailed the Department of Labor, she is the last full-time safety trainer left statewide.
“We will try to make every moment count when working with a farm,” Hayley said.
She challenged the two dozen or so attendees to consider what’s the most important factor on their farms: safety, quality or production. Many chimed in to say “safety” aloud and appeared surprised when she said farmers should consider them equally important. Most farms consider quality and production tops, even though they say “safety first” to employees.
“Don’t tell me to come to your farm if you don’t want me to change your company culture,” Hayley said.
Though near misses aren’t reported, they represent a better picture of what’s unsafe on a farm.
“Beyond the injuries and illnesses, how many near misses do you have?” she asked. “It’s about 300 to one. And some estimate it’s closer to 900 to one.”
She said letting near misses slide without changing what caused an accident to almost happen will eventually cause an accident to happen.
Anna Meyerhoff, trainer for New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH), continued the session by explaining she can offer free training in Spanish and English. Topics include the roll bar program, power take off safety, personal protective equipment, and respirator fitting and training. Fluent in Spanish, Meyerhoff said it’s important to explain these important issues in detail in the workers’ first language so that they understand why it’s so important.
“Many [immigrant and migrant] workers come from farms in their home country where they haven’t handled cows or haven’t on this scale,” she said after her session.
Bill Gibson, a contractor for NYCAMH, continued the workshop by sharing how he too became interested in farm safety after his uncle died of farmer’s lung at the age of 45. He conducts farm safety audits.
“We are always able to point out something the farmer overlooked or didn’t know about,” Gibson said.
Karl Czymmek, a PRO-DAIRY team member present, said he has read on a psychology website that “farmers have normalized risk. We really could normalize safety.”
Hayley reiterated, “Safety needs to be equal with everything else you’re doing. Set the example. Bring in someone to audit.”
She said some farms hammer out good safety protocols and plans, but don’t implement them, which actually proves more damning when OSHA inspectors drop in for an inspection — in addition to representing a lack of ethics for knowingly endangering employees.
“It’s about managing people,” Hayley said. “If what you have on paper doesn’t match what you are doing, that’s a problem.”
She encouraged farm owners and management to lead in implementing safe work habits.
That’s exactly what Danielle Volles does at her family farm, which hosted the workshop. Volles had worked in banking 16 years “in high heels and pantyhose,” she quipped as she looked down at the jeans and work shoes she wore. When she returned to the family farm, she started keeping the books.
A farm fatality spurred her to make safety part of Volles Farm’s way of doing business.
“Safety typically isn’t the center in ag,” she said. “That’s not an option. My friend died here. I will not stop asking employees if they’re doing things right.”
“Don’t be complacent. I focus on it all the time.”
She keeps numerous binders to keep her safety records organized and if OSHA inspectors come, she can readily access whatever is needed.
Her role isn’t as a hands-on employee. She thinks that brings a “fresh pair of eyes” to aspects of the farm that most operations consider prone to accidents, including the machine shop, manure storage and skid steers.
She recommends farms assign a “point person” such as herself who reports, records and tracks safety, as well as address any safety concerns with outside parties such as OSHA.
She frequently walks through the entire farm, self-auditing and recording how the farm is improving safety.
Volles believes the key to farm safety is employee engagement.
“I cannot do safety training unless employees are onboard,” Volles said. “I started asking employees how we can do it better. I ask what we can do to change it.”
She’s a self-proclaimed “label queen” and likes to ensure safety signage is in place, not just to warn visitors but also as visual reminders to employees.
Volles is also big on employee training, even if it’s just a few moments to talk about safety in the midst of the day outside of a formal training session.
‘Taking two minutes to explain how to do something is worth it if it saves someone’s life,” Volles said.