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In Pam Dawling’s review of my new book on DIY farm tools in the August issue of GFM she pointed out an important safety tip I overlooked in the book and that got me thinking about what else I left out on that topic. Workplace safety is a priority for me, and the longer I farm the more I’ve come to understand that in many cases safety hazards I would have just worked around when I was younger, are actually worth fixing up front. Creating a good environment on the farm for myself, all of my employees, and all the other creatures on the farm isn’t just a nice thing to do, it actually makes the farm better as a whole.
Some safety risks aren’t immediately obvious- like the fact that oil-soaked rags are a spontaneous combustion hazard. Do not let oily rags sit in a pile - specifically rags soaked with linseed oil, but also other types of oily rags. I’ve never seen them combust myself, probably because I’m stingy with oil, tend to work rags until they’re nearly dry and then spread them out to dry, but many kinds of oily rags can, and do regularly spontaneously combust causing fires, often when folks have no idea that’s a possibility. I grew up working in shops where there were metal cans specifically for holding oil-soaked rags with warnings on them about the possibility of spontaneous combustion. So it’s knowledge I take a little too much for granted these days.
I polled a group of experienced farmers I know on their top safety recommendations based on years of actual experiences in the field. I got some great responses I’ll share here, anonymously. I think a point that every one of them made in one form or another was that working safely needs to be an active part of the culture on the farm, not something taken for granted.
There are different types of active approaches that can all work together on the farm. Having regular safety meetings for the entire crew, and encouraging their ideas, as well as sharing your own – and then encouraging that thinking and communication to happen in the day to day, even outside of the meetings is a great starting point. One farmer pointed out there’s actually a ton of good safety information in user manuals for tools and we really should all be taking the time to read them.
I’m actually someone who does this, always scanning them for some little tidbit that I might not have already known, and also marveling at all the ways people have apparently mis-used tools in the past, or could conceivably mis-use a tool. It’s a popular trope that no one reads the manual because they’re full of meaningless legalese, but if you can look past that you’ll often find some good information buried in the obtuse writing.
Another important tip is to encourage people, yourself included, to actively pay attention to your own limits and not push them too far. One farm sets a target of always ending a task with at least 5% left in the tank whether the task is done or not and I know that my worst mistakes have always been made when I was tired, frequently at the end of the day. Almost every time I think, “I’m just going to push through and finish a project even though it’s late,” I end up making mistakes that cost more time in the end.
Self-awareness is important in preventing repetitive stress injuries, too. Recognizing little annoying pains and dealing with them before they become debilitating injuries is just as important on the farm as it is to folks who spend too long sitting at a desk typing away. In my book, Build Your Own Farm Tools, a lot of the design discussion is around adjusting working heights and designing tools with good ergonomics to help alleviate longer term problems that stem from easily adjusted but poorly designed tools and systems.
Long term health and safety is just as important as avoiding discrete injuries. I’ve known many farmers, and others, who have had skin cancer from excessive sun exposure, immersion foot from prolonged cold and wet exposure, and other potentially avoidable maladies that are largely avoidable simply by dressing more appropriately for the work conditions. Not wearing a proper dust mask when working with dusty amendments is one of the silliest short cuts I’ve regularly taken while farming, and why? Effective dust masks are inexpensive and pretty easy to have on hand right where we store and mix amendments. Similarly, good hearing and eye protection is easy enough to have close at hand with any tools or tasks that warrant it.
While discrete injuries aren’t the only safety concerns, they are still important to avoid and as several farmers pointed out, just making workers aware of the most common ones and how to avoid them is a good first step. Here are two common market farm injuries mentioned: cuts to hands from harvest knives and head injuries from t-post pounders. If I hadn’t heard the t-post pounder mentioned by others I would have assumed I’m the only idiot who has ever smacked himself in the forehead while lifting the pounder - something I’ve fortunately only done once, but I warn all my employees every time they use one, and show them how to avoid doing it to themselves.
On the other hand, cuts from harvest knives are very understandable, and almost completely avoidable with good technique and focus. On the farm we’re constantly holding vegetables close to the point where we’re cutting. Use the proper knife, one that is properly sharp, and practice cutting away from our knuckles (it’s almost always a knuckle injury in my experience, although I do know one person who stabbed themselves in the leg and I fear for toes in open toed shoes). Following the advice above to work within limits all makes a big difference in safety. Again, as mentioned above, regular reminders, not just initial training, help keep crews focused and avoid injuries on the farm.
Vigilance and commitment to safety is important. It’s easy to become complacent, especially when we get away with unsafe practices regularly without any resultant injuries. This is sometimes called “negative event reinforcement” and it tends to make the practice feel safer than it actually is. Every time you get away with doing something potentially dangerous, it makes it feel like the danger will never happen – and that itself can be dangerous.
One final thought on safety with tools, accidents are inevitable and so being prepared to deal with one is also an important part of safety. At the very least you should make sure that first aid kits are on your farm in places that they can be easily accessed, and that they are checked on a regular schedule. Most people have an idea of how to use the basics in the most basic first aid kit, but especially if you’re farming in a rural location, it’s a good idea to have at least one or more people on the farm who have some sort of formal first aid training.
I’m still leaving out quite a bit here. I haven’t mentioned tractors, or other vehicles specifically, and irrigation systems, hoop houses, and packing equipment, as well as many other tools we use on farms can all have serious safety hazards involved. The main point is to start actively talking about these on your farm, developing good systems for using tools safely, and plan for what to do if there is an accident. Winter is a great time for most farms to be doing research and making plans for how to put safety plans in place.
One free resource you might check out for more information is OSHA Consultation Services (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). The consultation services are not connected to their inspection services and they can help evaluate safety at your farm completely independent from the enforcement side of the agency.
Josh Volk farms in Portland, Oregon, and does consulting and education under the name Slow Hand Farm. He is the author of the book Build Your Own Farm Tools and Compact Farms: 15 Proven Plans for Market Farms on 5 Acres or Less, both available from Growing for Market. He can be found at SlowHandFarm.com.