by Sally Colby

Ag employers know it’s difficult to find and retain good workers. John Shutske, professor and Extension specialist at University of Wisconsin-Madison, said employees are paying more attention to safety and health. Retaining good workers is directly related to having a solid safety program in place, and the process begins with trust.

“It’s about having the confidence to know you can depend on another person,” said Shutske. “It’s also the idea of engagement. For a lot of employers, it’s a shift in mindset – thinking of workers having not only strength and physical capacity but also having ideas that can improve the operation.”

Building trust takes time, sometimes months or years, and requires active, two-way engagement. Trust can be lost quickly, especially when actions don’t match words or statements.

Many agricultural businesses operate with family members, often multiple generations. “It’s easy for people to feel like they’re not trusted, that they’re left out, that their ideas count less than people who are part of the family,” said Shutske. “Be careful and thoughtful to be sure that perception is not created.”

A major factor in building trust is listening to people and valuing their ideas. When workers feel vulnerable, trust levels are low. Factors that destroy trust include not listening or caring, keeping secrets, breaking commitments, not admitting mistakes, not taking responsibility and micromanaging.

Jim Versweyveld, ag Extension director, UW-Madison, said low worker trust leads to low morale, and low morale has productivity implications. In a high trust environment, people tend to look at the implications of their absence on the team and are concerned about the welfare of the business and coworkers. A poor trust environment often leads to conflict between employees, which affects productivity when supervisors are pulled away to handle issues.

Your farm culture isn’t what you say it is, it’s what your employees perceive it to be, said Versweyveld. “When the workplace culture is positive, there’s a competitive advantage that can lead to better recruitment, employment, retention and a better safety program.”

In workplaces with a negative workplace culture and low trust environment, workers are hesitant to report issues because they don’t want to look bad to others, or they’re afraid of consequences and believe that if they admit a safety mistake, they may be disciplined or fired. There may also be a culture of not calling out others for risky behavior with the implied message “don’t rat me out to the boss.” The goal is to reach “psychological safety” – the understanding that workers won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up, having questions and concerns or for making mistakes.

Developing safety culture in the workplace

Employers have a responsibility to instruct workers on all aspects of farm safety, including proper storage of farm chemicals. In this example, the farm manager is demonstrating how easy it would be for someone to mistake the improperly stored liquid in the jug for a beverage. Photo by Sally Colby

The first step for managers is to lead by example. “When management commits to safety, employees will adopt safe practices,” said Versweyveld. “If safety is an afterthought or viewed as an obstacle to getting work done, it will be difficult to convince employees that safety matters.”

The next step is communication, with “early and often” in mind. Communication must be regular, whether it’s quick morning meetings or weekly or monthly safety talks. “When possible, communication should be worker-led,” said Versweyveld. This helps build buy-in, showing employees that talking about safety is an expectation of everyone’s job.

Sometimes safety is viewed as “not my job” – it’s the manager’s job or the safety committee’s job. To achieve a safety culture, safety must be everyone’s job. “When you achieve that,” said Versweyveld, “workers are concerned about others’ safety and not just their own. They’re watching out for each other. When that happens, safety becomes part of who you are as a business, even when the boss isn’t around.”

The third step is to implement positive reporting. “Let your teams know it’s okay to bring safety concerns to your attention,” said Versweyveld. “Give your employees permission to fail, that it’s okay to mess up, okay to bring their mistakes to you and that you do want to hear about them.”

Near-miss reporting is essential for a solid safety culture but can be difficult to implement. A near-miss is a close call that could have resulted in personal injury, property damage or an animal welfare incident but didn’t. “There’s a training opportunity in those situations and a way to build out your safety program,” he said. “But you can only do that if people tell you that’s happening. If near-misses are ignored or someone hopes no one noticed, near-miss reporting will not be effective.”

The key to consistent near-miss reporting begins with management encouraging employees to bring situations to a manager’s attention. “Assure them there won’t be repercussions, that it’s okay to tell you about situations and that you really want to know,” said Versweyveld. “Follow up is key and may involve changing an SOP or looking at where change has to take place. If the follow up is missed, people will stop bringing things to your attention.”

Farming presents unique dangers that can impact health and well-being, and if employees weren’t aware of the hazards prior to being hired, they soon learn or figure it out. Employees care about their own safety and appreciate a safe and healthy work environment. They also recognize positive changes that benefit everyone.

Shutske suggested developing a safety policy for the farm, no matter the farm size, and even if only family members are involved. “The idea of a good safety policy is it’s done in partnership with workers and family members,” he said. “It’s a document developed through a process. For workers, think of it as a preamble to a bigger, comprehensive safety and health program.” The policy should spell out expectations and consequences of not living up to expectations. A clear policy shows commitment to safety.

Ideally, the farm safety policy is developed cooperatively with the workforce who have agreed to work together as a team, and establishes expectations and responsibilities. On a large farm with many employees, each production unit should be represented. “People need to know what’s expected of them,” said Shutske. “We need to be working in a continuous improvement process to make things better.”

A comprehensive list of peer-reviewed documents on a variety of safety topics compiled by the National Ag Safety Database is available at