Manure handling on the farm is a fairly routine process, but it has the potential to cause serious injury, illness or death in the brief instant it takes to turn a switch. Even if manure handling is relegated to a custom operator, the dairy farmer, another family member or an employee often has a role in some stage of the process, and is responsible for those who are working in and around the manure holding facility.
Dr. Gary Felton, University of Maryland Department of Environmental Science and Technology, says one of the ways in which a farmer can be seriously injured or killed during manure handling is in a PTO accident. “Most PTO accidents occur when the PTO shaft is rotating at lower speeds,” he said. “Somehow that high movement PTO scares you enough to stay away from it.”
It’s easy to feel a false sense of safety when a PTO is moving slowly. While working PTOs move quickly and usually make enough noise to create some sense of danger, shafts often move at low speeds while the tractor idles as the operator is making adjustments or working on another aspect of the job. Felton says PTO accidents are most likely to occur when the operator is dressed in loose clothing — shirttail out, baggy sleeves — and reaches over an unshielded PTO. “This is an invitation to get grabbed by a PTO shaft and get wrapped around it,” he said, “and that’s usually not survivable.”
Felton tells the story of a dairy farm owner in New York who was fatally injured while transferring manure from an underground storage pit to a manure lagoon. The manure pump was connected to a PTO shaft, and the farmer reached across the unshielded PTO shaft in order to operate the hand crank that would turn the manure pump chute. As he reached over, his clothing became entangled in the PTO shaft, wrapping the farmer’s body around the shaft.
“Stop the PTO when you get off the tractor,” said Felton. “I know you want to keep it running, but I want you to be able to get back on the tractor.”
One problem is that older PTOs don’t always have a shield. PTO shields that are damaged or compromised in any way should be replaced, and never touched or adjusted while the PTO is engaged. Anyone working in the vicinity of a PTO should wear appropriate clothing, and long hair should be managed so that it cannot make contact with the PTO if the operator bends over.
Farmers and employers should be aware of OSHA standards regarding PTOs. OSHA standards state, “Power take-off driven equipment shall be guarded to protect against employee contact with positively driven rotating members of the power drive system…” Further verbiage includes, “All power take-off shafts, including rear, mid or side-mounted shafts, shall be guarded either by a master shield or other protective guarding.”
However, OHSA standards for PTOs apply only to employers — OSHA’s safety standards are not imposed on equipment manufacturers. This means that manufacturers are not required to include guarding on PTO devices. And since many farmers and tractor operators are working on their own land, OSHA regulations don’t apply. However, the reason for guard requirements doesn’t change — the rules are for safety, and farm owners should take the same measures for themselves as they would for employees.
Felton reminds farm owners that if an employee is injured by an unshielded PTO shaft, you (as the farm owner) are liable. “If you have employees and they’re working around a PTO, they had better be shielded PTOs,” he said. It’s important to repair damage to PTO shields or replace them when necessary, and resist the temptation to make adjustments to shields when the PTO is engaged.
Another hazard of working with manure handling equipment is the occasional necessity to enter a confined space. Felton defines a confined space as ‘a space that has limited entrance and exit and potential for atmospheric hazard.’ A confined space is large enough that a person can make entry and perform work, but has limited openings for entry and exit and is not designed for continuous occupancy.
“Confined spaces are a concern because you never think of them,” said Felton. “A confined space is simply a space that allows you to enter (even with difficulty) and get out (again, with difficulty) and there might be an atmospheric problem. The word ‘enter’ really means, ‘can I fit my head in it?’”
The list of confined spaces is long and varied, and includes manure pits, digesters, covered lagoons, tanks, silos, sewers, pipelines, boilers, storage bins, pump stations, pits and sumps, manholes, tanker trucks, water reservoirs, kilns and driers. “Some of those are on your farm,” said Felton. “Some of them are everywhere you go, and you don’t think about a lot of them.”
If you must enter a manure pit, never do so without at least one other adult present. Make sure there’s fresh air ventilation, which can be from a fan. “Do you have self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)?” said Felton. “Anyone with a farm probably doesn’t, but we sure would like you to because it saves lives.”
Entering a confined space safely means wearing a harness that’s securely attached to something stable outside the confined space, and so that someone on the outside can quickly pull you in. “People die because they go in after people,” said Felton. “In most accidents related to manure gasses, there are multiple fatalities, and they’re usually all in the same family.”
Gas detectors can add a measure of safety for those working in confined spaces. Farmers have two main choices when it comes to portable detectors: single gas detectors, which measures just one gas, or a multi-gas monitor that can detect dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), methane and dangerously low oxygen. “H2S is the most lethal of the three gasses, although all gasses can be lethal,” said Felton. “A single gas detector, about the size of a cell phone, costs between $99 and $500; depending on the level of complexity. Some higher-cost gas detectors will record gas levels.
Felton explains that gas detectors can be placed next to the sump pump and turned on when needed. “It’ll help you stay alive if you have gas problems,” he said. “One of the problems with manure gasses is that they change. If you change a practice in your dairy, like feed or bedding, manure gasses can change significantly.”