by Sally Colby

It’s easy to forget – or just ignore – health, safety and PPE (personal protective equipment) during harvest. But Ellen Duysen, outreach specialist and coordinator, Agriculture Safety and Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said ignoring risk during this busy time can be deadly.

Before considering suitable PPE, review health and safety measures. Anyone who suggests to a farmer during harvest that they should get enough sleep and reduce stress will likely be met with an eyeroll. “It’s a high stress time and there’s little rest,” said Duysen. “We need to start rethinking that and finding ways to improve restfulness, reduce stress and realize these measures can increase productivity.”

Duysen said those performing stress self-checks throughout the day might find themselves with a stiff neck or shoulders hiked up to their ears – both indicators of ongoing stress. Stressors can be a reaction to a challenge or demand, but not all stress is bad. “We know stress can be helpful,” she said, referencing the fight-or-flight situation. “We sometimes need stress to be at our best, and it’s protecting our body. Short-term stress is okay.”

Peak performance levels vary among individuals. With prolonged stress, health problems such as high blood pressure, depression, diabetes or skin problems may show up for the first time or become worse. Physical stressors include noise, poor lighting, eyestrain, equipment strain, long hours, unpredictable weather and delays due to equipment breakdown. Workers who have inflexible work hours have significant stress, especially those who have young families or other compounding factors at home.

In addressing sleep deprivation, Duysen said there’s a 60% increase in the chance of injury for those working more than 40 hours. There’s a 37% increase in injury risk for those working a 12-hour day, and a 32% reduction in alertness with just 1.5 fewer hours of sleep. The result of just one sleepless night the next day is reactions identical to someone with a 0.10% blood alcohol level, which can create problems with balance and judgement. To help reduce risk of injury due to sleep deprivation, go to bed at the same time each night, and more importantly, get up at the same time each morning.

Agricultural employers and farm managers have a responsibility to keep workers safe, even on farms not bound by OSHA regulations. With time on the road and in the field, workers are subjected to excess noise, traffic, dust and fumes. At the beginning of each workday, employers should perform PPE checks and provide brief PPE reminders. Remember that new and temporary workers are most likely to be injured or killed.

“Identify and understand appropriate PPE,” said Duysen. “If you are responsible for workers, you need worker input. If they don’t wear it, it’s not of use to anyone. Train employees in the use and care of PPE, maintain and replace it, and evaluate the effectiveness of PPE.” Duysen noted that if fit tests are appropriate, be sure they’re done correctly.

While nearly everyone is familiar with PPE, many fail to use it for a variety of reasons. If it’s poorly designed, workers are unlikely to use it. If workers don’t think they can wear PPE properly, they probably won’t wear it, and if it isn’t conveniently located, they won’t bother to use it.

Women often have trouble finding PPE that fits appropriately, which makes it less likely they’ll comply. PPE that is too large or doesn’t fit properly is hazardous and can result in serious injuries. “For women, that means small respirators, small earplugs,” said Duysen.

Workday threats to the head include UV exposure and trauma. Duysen said there’s increased awareness of the danger of excess sun exposure, but when seed and feed companies started distributing ball caps instead of wide brim hats, there was a significant increase in skin cancer rates of the nose, lips, ears and neck in the ag community simply because those areas were exposed.

“We’ve seen a shift from hard hats to industrial safety helmets,” said Duysen. “They’re more comfortable, lighter and fit better.” Improvements in safety glasses include cyclonic venting glasses that have excellent anti-fogging properties. “We have enhanced vertical and horizontal field of vision with some glasses now,” she said. “Floating nose loops and self-adjusting nose pads give better comfort, stability and fit. Paddle-shaped temples evenly distribute weight and pressure.” Duysen suggested supplying workers with a breakaway neckband for safety glasses to encourage use.

Welding is often necessary to make repairs during harvest. Innovation in welding helmets includes pairing the helmet with a powered air purifying respirator system that protects the operator and helps keeps them cooler. Anyone using new welding equipment during harvest should be fully trained on all aspects of using such equipment.

Noise-induced hearing loss is an ongoing problem in agriculture. Today, 30% of 30-year-olds working in agriculture have hearing loss. Duysen said most hearing loss was formerly due to excess noise from cabless tractors and equipment, but now the source is likely to be gunfire and loud music. Damage to hearing occurs at 85 decibels or higher, and one hour at 100 decibels or any amount of time over 120 decibels requires hearing protection. Duysen said electronic earmuffs with built-in directional microphones help amplify ambient sound up to five times in stereo. “If you’re working and need to hear commands, these earmuffs it,” she said. “They automatically shut off when ambient sound goes over 82 decibels.” For those who don’t want to wear earmuffs because they’re too hot, OSHA-compliant Bluetooth earplug headphones might be the answer.

Duysen cautioned ag workers to be aware of and use appropriate respiratory protection. She advised that offering vented N95 masks results in higher compliance, adding that all masks should have two straps. Air-powered purifying respirators are loose-fitting respirators that doesn’t require a fit test. These respirators are certified at 1,000 APF and are suitable for workers with facial hair or those who have trouble breathing against resistance.

Hand safety is often managed with whatever gloves are available, but that isn’t the ideal approach. “We need specific gloves for a specific task,” said Duysen, citing a research project. “When specialized gloves are hung on a glove board, labeled by task, workers choose the correct glove 90% of the time.” For those using chemicals, it’s even more important to use the correct gloves. Increase compliance by providing a breakaway clip so gloves can be hung from the wearer’s belt.

Innovations in footwear include more comfortable options, especially for women’s safety shoes. Carbon fiber safety toes make work boots lighter without sacrificing safety and are especially good for extreme high or low temperatures. Most high-quality composite carbon fiber-toed footwear is OSHA approved. In winter, mini cleats across the arch are inexpensive, easy to strap on and provide some protection from slips and falls for those walking on snow or ice.

Encourage workers to take breaks, especially if they’re operating machinery. Ideally, breaks should include leaving the machinery to take a walk and rehydrate. All workers should be aware of their own and others’ well-being during all aspects of harvest.