by Sally Colby
If winter weather hasn’t made an appearance on your farm yet, it will soon. Most field work is finished, but livestock still have to be fed, equipment must be repaired and there’s plenty to do in the farm shop. Just as they do the rest of the year, farmers will be working outside, often in less than ideal conditions.
A good starting point for winter work safety is making sure someone else knows your whereabouts and what you’ll be doing. Keep your cell phone charged, carry a good flashlight and/or headlamp, and be aware of current and forecasted weather conditions.
One often-overlooked aspect of winter safety is self-care. Stay hydrated, but try to avoid caffeine as it can interfere with the body’s ability to maintain heat. Eat regularly and include nutritious foods that will provide fuel for body heat. Be aware of the risk of exacerbated symptoms that come with winter work for individuals with medical conditions such as COPD, asthma and arthritis.
Farmers are accustomed to dressing in layers suitable for a wide range of temperatures throughout the workday, but apparel choice is especially important in winter. Multiple, insulating layers with waterproof outerwear provide the best protection in winter temperatures. Be sure clothing fits properly and that there are no loose or ripped sections that could become caught in machinery, in a gate or when working with livestock.
Cold weather hampers the ability to move freely and adds risk to nearly every farm task, and heavy clothing adds more to that risk. For tasks that may result in becoming wet, keep extra clothing handy and change immediately. Wear good sunglasses, especially when there’s snow on the ground, to prevent eye fatigue.
Choosing hand protection to match the task can help prevent injuries. While leather mittens with a good lining are the warmest selection, mittens aren’t always the most practical for a task. Ideally, mittens or gloves should allow the wearer to add liners for extra warmth, but be aware that layers may decrease dexterity.
Gloves should allow the fingers to wiggle slightly. Gloves that are too large present a safety hazard, and gloves that are too small restrict blood flow and lead to cold fingers. Some farm tasks can’t be performed without gloves, so keep a good pair of gloves nearby and wear them when possible. The combination of flesh and cold steel with the addition of wind and precipitation can quickly lead to frostbite. Cold fingers aren’t as nimble, so be extra cautious when working in cold conditions.
Know which gloves are best for weather and work conditions, such as gloves with a good grip surface for handling lumber or firewood. Keep several pairs of gloves handy for switching out if weather conditions change, are too bulky for the job, or if a pair becomes wet. If the task requires bare hands and there’s potential for wet hands, keep a towel nearby to thoroughly dry your hands before slipping them into warm gloves.
Good footwear is important in winter, and may mean the difference between comfort and the desire to run back inside. Boots should fit well and allow the wearer to layer socks. Wool or wool blend socks combined with liners are ideal in cold weather. Wool socks will retain heat while wet, but it’s a good idea to keep extra socks handy. Check boots at the end of each day for signs of holes or tears, and if soles become worn and slick, replace them immediately to decrease the risk of slipping and falling.
The risk of injuries associated with tractors rises in snowy and icy conditions. Anyone working on the ground near an operating tractor should keep a safe distance, and tractor operators should be especially vigilant in watching for people, especially small children, who may be nearby.
Ideally, all equipment is properly maintained and ready for winter, eliminating the need for last-minute winterizing or prolonged cold-weather starts. If work outside becomes necessary, dress appropriately and pace yourself to avoid becoming overheated, chilled or tired. Determine a reasonable estimate for the time a task will require, and break it up if conditions are exceptionally poor.
Choose your winter battles wisely. If it’s 10 degrees and icy and the tractor isn’t running smoothly, decide whether the task can wait. It isn’t worth the increased risk of injury that’s possible when working on equipment in less than ideal conditions.
Try to save more complex, time-consuming repairs for days when wind is minimal and temperatures are above freezing, but watch for changing conditions, early sundown and the risk of hypothermia as evening approaches.
If the surface of an indoor or outdoor livestock handling area becomes frozen or develops a few frozen spots, be aware of the danger of both humans and animals slipping. A slipping, falling cow poses a threat to other cows close to her as well as human handlers.
Children playing outdoors should be dressed appropriately and have free movement of arms and legs without becoming overheated. Children should understand where they are allowed to play and what’s off-limits. One responsible adult should be assigned to monitoring the whereabouts of children so that no one makes the mistake of thinking another person is watching them.
Be sure that young people using ATVs for either farm work or recreation are fully capable of operating the vehicle and are appropriately dressed, including an approved helmet. Adults should supervise all ATV activity and strictly enforce the ‘no extra riders’ rule. ATV operators who competently handled a vehicle in summer are now wearing extra clothing, restricting movement and potentially slowing reaction time. ATVs handle differently on snow and ice, so make sure operators are trained accordingly and understand the risks.
Although the prospect of a riding a sled or toboggan behind a tractor or ATV sounds like the perfect winter activity, both the driver and rider are at high risk for serious injury. The vehicle driver must constantly look back to watch what he’s pulling and may not see an upcoming hazard, and the person being towed has no way of knowing which way the pulling vehicle will turn or stop. Chunks of snow and ice in the path increase the risk of the rider being ejected and injured. This is one activity that’s better left not done.
As is the case in summer, extra precautions are necessary when farm children host friends who have no farm background. Children who have been raised on a farm may understand the potential dangers but their young farm friends usually don’t realize the risks. Adults should supervise sledding, and be sure those on sleds can’t spill onto a roadway or in the path of farm equipment. Farm ponds should be off-limits to all unless a competent adult has fully checked the pond for sufficient ice thickness. A competent adult who recognizes the signs of hypothermia and is willing and able to rescue a skater in distress should supervise skating.