Shay Foulk refers to farming as a “naturally unsafe occupation” but said there is no good reason to die farming.

Foulk is an Army veteran transitioning back into agriculture with a family seed business in Illinois. He also works as an ag and safety consultant across the nation, sharing his passion for safety with a strong desire to keep those involved in production agriculture safe. He believes that a proactive approach should be the forefront of a farm safety program.

“I believe we have a great opportunity to make emergency response better, to make farms safer and to create better continuity in farm operations,” said Foulk. “In emergency response, we are very reactive when it comes to emergencies on the farming operation and safety preparation. A lot of times we wait for something bad to happen, or have a close call, to implement the change we need to see. That’s backwards.”

Many first responders are rural residents who volunteer their time to help save others in the community. However, in some areas, responders come from urban or suburban areas bordering farm communities. These responders may not have an ag background and may not fully understand farm safety issues.

Foulk sees a major lapse in coverage when it comes to emergency response planning on the farm, in the field and with equipment. He compares farm work to other industries such as construction, manufacturing or transportation where safety is emphasized, and said ag is lacking the same standards.

“We have historically accepted ag as a high-risk occupation and just assumed that’s how it is,” said Foulk. “I think we can change that thinking.”

Mapping for farm safetyFoulk suggested farm staff host a meeting with first responders and the farm business team to conduct a walk-through of the physical location and develop a communication plan. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind about hazards and ensuring a consistent message. “It needs to be easy to implement, simple to use, make economic senses and be effective,” he said.

Begin the process with a checklist of measures that can be implemented. Mapping the entire operation, including all fields and satellite farms, should be part of the checklist. The plan should include clear instructions that would allow anyone to get to any farm location using grid coordinates or maps. A site walk-through with emergency personnel and all farmworkers can take place at any time of year, but ideally pre-planting or pre-harvest.

First responders benefit from a site map that includes a reference legend. Such a map provides a clear picture for anyone coming onto the farm for an emergency and shows potential electrical hazards, grain bin locations, the farm shop and equipment storage, trip or fall hazards and chemical hazards.

While mapping is the proactive aspect of farm safety, it must be accompanied by appropriate training and preparation. “One of the hardest conversations to have with farmers and agribusiness is that you never know the injuries or accidents you are preventing by implementing these measures,” said Foulk.

While the cost of implementing safety measures such as creating proper chemical storage or repairing electrical hazards might seem unreasonable, the dollar figure must be weighed against how such a cost will impact the business. More importantly, how would a serious injury or death affect the health and mental well-being of the rest of the family and employees?

Once the blueprint is created and labeled, host an emergency response meeting with as many first responders as you can. Police, sheriff, EMS, dispatch and hazmat all have a crucial role in understanding what’s going on in a farming operation.

The location walk-through allows everyone to see potential hazards and understand more about a farm operation. This is an opportunity for all to learn what can happen in a grain bin or manure storage as well as the general farm hazards. It also provides an opportunity for farmers to answer questions, and in some cases, first responders will notice hazardous aspects on the farm and suggest changes.

Establishing and recording grid coordinates for various field entries is ideal because the coordinates can be typed into Google and found instantly. Clear communication is critical – minutes can make the difference in saving a limb, eyesight or a life. Since not all 911 operators ask the same questions in the same order, Foulk suggested having an emergency response sheet to help with the 911 call.

Foulk’s emergency response sheet includes information that makes it easy for anyone calling 911 to express information clearly and without panic. The sheet is easy to access and is filled in with appropriate answers to each of these points: “There is a [state the emergency] at [address]. My phone number is [__]. I am located at [provide location, surroundings]. Please bring [supplies that might be needed]’ and describe any people involved (male/female, injuries, age, known health issues. Ideally, grid coordinates are provided along with field notes when applicable.

A young or new operator may not be familiar with the intricacies of a field – ditches, gas or electric lines, springs – which all present a hazard that could result in a serious tractor accident. Field mapping can help clarify precise locations. Although 911 can triangulate a location, its reliability is dependent on cell signal strength. Several hundred meters’ variance in location can mean the difference in finding someone who has had a serious accident in time to save them.

Foulk said with the huge increases in technology society’s had, we can’t imagine the technology available years from now. It’s important to remain ahead of the curve to save lives. Preventing an accident can also potentially make a difference in whether a farming operation continues to the next generation.

“We don’t know what we are preventing by implementing some of these measures, but we can measure the safety of an operation by understanding the working environment we’re a part of,” said Foulk. “Change the culture of not accepting the inherent risk in the industry – how do we change this through emergency response planning?”

by Sally Colby