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An Ounce of Prevention

Careful horse business owners take all sorts of precautions to prevent horse-related accidents among their staff and clients. From hard hats to arena rules, they attend to the smallest details with the goal of eliminating any accidents involving horses.

When it comes to other aspects of farm management, however, they’re more inclined to leave safety to chance or to the common sense they hope their employees have. Because horses are the focus of their business, they may overlook the injury potential inherent in non-horse farm activities. There may be a language barrier to cross. But when employees are injured, owners quickly find the resulting losses go straight to their bottom line.

A little investment in safety can go a long way. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), employers save $4 to $6 for every $1 they invest in safety.

Employee injuries can affect a business’s cash flow in multiple ways. If the injured party is a key person responsible for much of the business’s income, the farm’s income may drop precipitously if that person is unable to work or if a temporary replacement must be hired. If other workers need to pitch in until the injured person returns to work, there may be overtime to pay or other forms of compensation. Events such as clinics or shows may need to be postponed or cancelled.

Seriously injured employees may file lawsuits that drain time, energy and dollars from the business. If the barn is one of the few that provides any health coverage for its employees, it may face a rate increase at renewal time. Tragic injuries can also impact the bottom line by lowering employee morale and client confidence.

That Hurts

Statistics indicate that, nationally, agriculture is one of the most perilous occupations. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), there were 21 farm accident deaths per 100,000 workers in 2002, second only to mining accidents. Tractors without rollover protection or seatbelts were the primary cause of agricultural fatalities. The NSC estimates that slips and falls alone cause 150,000 disabling injuries on farms annually, typically when workers slip on surfaces or machinery that is wet, muddy or icy.

In 1994, the National Agricultural Statistics Service did a survey of farm injuries for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA). They found that during that year, there were approximately 122,000 work-related injuries that resulted in at least half a day of lost work. That works out to about six injuries for every 100 farms. Cuts and bruises (27 percent) led the list followed by fractures (22 percent) and sprains or strains (21 percent). Livestock caused 20 percent of the injuries, farm machinery (excluding tractors) caused 19 percent, and tractors caused 5 percent.

Trips to hospital emergency rooms eventually find their way into the statistics but minor injuries like back sprains, carpal tunnel syndrome, heat stroke, and other complaints that just wind up in the family doctor’s office often do not. “Most back problems don’t lead to death,” says Zane Helsel, assistant director of cooperative extension at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, but back problems and so-called “minor” injuries can have a major impact on an employee’s ability to work.

Under the Radar

Since the available statistics lump horse farms with all other farms (and probably miss many types of horse enterprises altogether), there is no way of comparing the accident rate at equine facilities with those at other types of agricultural operations.

Accidents and injuries on horse farms are no doubt underreported. In some states, small agricultural enterprises with only a few employees are exempt from workers’ compensation laws and the associated reporting of workers’ compensation claims (see Resources). Any business with even a single employee is subject to OHSA regulations, but those with fewer than 10 employees in a calendar year are exempt from OSHA’s accident reporting requirements.

That would seem to exempt many small horse operations, for a couple of reasons. First, OSHA does not count family members working in a business as employees. And second, many horse operations avoid putting instructors, trainers and other personnel on the farm’s payroll by treating them as independent contractors. But Sam Steel, National Safety Council director of projects and grants, cautions that horse business owners can easily meet the accident reporting threshold if they hire extra people to help with a large show or auction. If a horse farm exceeds the employment level on even a single day within the year, it is required to file an OHSA report for that year, he says.

Many of OSHA’s agricultural regulations cover activities that would rarely occur on a horse farm. But OSHA regulations do cover many routine horse farm activities. For example, many horse business owners might be surprised to find that if they sent a youngster under age 16 (even one of their own children) up a ladder, asked him to steer the tractor while they tossed bales of hay onto a wagon, or asked her to lead a stallion back to his stall, they would be in violation of OSHA regulations. Non-compliance with OSHA regulations could be a pivotal issue if an injured employee files a lawsuit. OSHA inspectors are unlikely to pay a surprise visit to your farm, but, says OSHA’s Jim Maddus, “I’d love to just get people to ride on tractors one at a time.”

Let Me Count the Ways

When it comes to human safety, horse people tend to think first of preventing horse-related accidents. Farm accidents, however, can be caused not only by animals but also by machinery, conditions in the farm’s buildings, and environmental exposures.

Machinery. Tractors, mowers, balers, arena rakes, front-end loaders, post-hole diggers, manure spreaders and feed augers are common on horse farms. Tractors are a leading cause of accidental farm deaths. Machinery, especially any machinery with a power take-off, can cause injuries when fingers or limbs are pinched or crushed. Loose clothing can get wrapped around a rotating shaft. Sharp blades cut and shear. Mowers throw stones or other debris out.

Rollovers are a main source of injury. Equipment to lift manure or heavy round bales can get out of balance and tip over. Tractors, ATVs and other small utility vehicles can roll over. Safety experts repeatedly cite the importance of providing rollover protection, prohibiting anyone other than the driver from riding on tractors and other machinery, placing a properly stocked first aid kit on every piece of heavy equipment, and providing operators with proper safety gear to protect eyes, ears and heads.

Accident statistics also show that injuries tend to increase as employees get tired late in the day and during busy seasons (such as hay making) and that older workers tend to be more accident-prone than younger ones. Keep these things in mind when assigning duties and deciding when to call it a day.

Environment. Many typical injuries such as slips, falls, lacerations, sprains and broken bones are due to environmental conditions. Cluttered aisles and disorganized work areas lead to accidents. Wet conditions or ice can make floor surfaces and exterior areas around the perimeters of buildings accidents waiting to happen. Heat and dehydration can affect workers mowing long hours in the hot sun or stacking bales in a poorly ventilated area. Dust and noise can also affect worker health. Enlist everyone on the farm to identify conditions with accident potential, and take steps to remedy them.

Ergonomics. In a horse operation, lifting heavy bags, bales and buckets goes with the territory. Training employees in the proper way to lift and bend to avoid injury can help maintain the farm’s productivity. Instructing employees in the proper use of tools can reduce repetitive stress injuries. Examine the systems the barn uses for daily chores to see how the potential for traumatic stress injuries can be reduced.

Electrical. Electrical accidents can result in loss of life, both human and equine, and in loss of farm buildings. Make sure there is ample clearance under outside electric lines for all trailers and farm equipment. Replace older outlets and make sure any electrical equipment is properly grounded. Toss old or frayed extension cords. Make sure power tools are used with extension cords of the right length and rating.

Chemical. Make sure any pesticides, herbicides, or other farm chemicals are stored in pestproof, waterproof containers and are properly marked. If there are children around the farm, keep hazardous materials locked up. And, make sure employees use proper safety equipment including chemical-resistant gloves, eye protection, face shields and respirators when handling these materials.

Mixing Cultures

The nature of the employee base is a significant safety issue that impacts all agricultural enterprises, says NSC’s Steel. When farms employ immigrant labor from Central and South American countries, they must deal with language issues and cultural attitudes that may be very different from those of the employer.

For immigrants with a rural background, says Steel, interaction with animals comes fairly naturally. However, they may have little or no prior experience with farm machinery and power take-off implements. They may have used the equipment in a previous job yet have never had any formal safety training. When employers do not speak Spanish and some employees do not even read or write their own language, safety training is extremely difficult.

Culturally, Steel says, immigrant laborers with little formal education often have little or no understanding of safety issues. They are more likely to overlook or misunderstand physical risks. Safety is secondary to earning money. They are more likely to come to work when they are ill and may not understand the risks of operating machinery while taking certain medications.

Steel advises employers to look for Spanish-language videos or safety fact sheets that rely on pictograms rather than written language to get their points across. OSHA and some states offer Spanish-language training materials to help employers bridge the cultural divide (see Resources sidebar).

That Ounce of Prevention

Accident prevention starts at the top. Farm management needs to be committed to safety, willing to take steps to prevent accidents, and to communicate a “safety first” attitude.

Start by finding or developing a checklist of safety issues that apply to your operation (see Checklist and Resources). Take a walk around your own premises and identify areas where safety could be improved.

Employee training should be part of the overall safety plan. Make sure one or more key employees gets Red Cross first aid and CPR certification. Train all employees in first response techniques to accident scenarios which could occur on your farm. Laminate and post safety instructions wherever appropriate. Hand out safety fact sheets (see Resources) and add safety discussions on a rotating set of topics to regular staff meetings.

Discussion fosters safety. When a small group of Canadian farmers were simply interviewed about farm accidents, those interviews alone increased their awareness and translated into an immediate drop in the accident rate on their farms. Talking about safety issues with your employees and letting them know that accident prevention is a high priority may be the single most effective measure you take.