Farm Safety – Workplace Activity Factors

The nature of farming generates a number of areas of workplace activities that can be inherently more risky than similar activities undertaken in an office or factory environment.

Work hours

The length of hours that someone works on a farm is normally considerably more than those generated by someone working elsewhere. The nature of the work means that it has to be undertaken with a speed and intensity that is spread over many hours. It is not uncommon for people working on a farm to spend between 60 and 80 hours a week working. If someone is a farm owner as well, they will see this not so much as work but as an investment in their family life as well.

Management

On a farm, there is not the traditional split between management and labor that there normally is in a company. This means that often there is no clear management focus on issues affecting health and safety, and there is more of a tendency to blur lines which can result in an increased risk factor, which needs to be managed by all the operatives.

Pace and routine of work

With most jobs, there is some degree of stability in terms of some type of routine and steady pace of work, although this can often be punctuated by extremely busy periods. Farm work is quite different in that there is very often no type of routine at all, and the pace can vary from being very slow to very fast.

The routine on a farm will vary, depending upon the season, the work that needs doing, the weather and how many staff are available to work. Many farms employ seasonal workers, often for specific types of jobs like grape harvesting, or picking corn. Much of the work is only done at certain times of year, often only once or twice a year.

This means that people who work on a farm full-time do not build up the ongoing different levels of experience that they need, and would normally get in other types of job.

Both of these things, the pace and routine of work, can generate a degree of uncertainty and instability, which is manageable from a work point of view, but which by its very nature makes the work more hazardous, and increases the risk that of injury and harm to individuals.

Training

Farming does not really have any formal training as such, most of the learning is done on the job. This was true for many industries up until very recently, but for many of them this has changed considerably in recent times, and training is now seen as something that needs to be delivered formally, aside from the day-to-day nature of the job.

This means that formal training around areas such as safety, fire prevention, manual handling and the like is taught in a classroom type setting, and is normally backed up by a raft of policies and procedures.

Farming does not do this. There may be people who work in the farming industry who have college degrees in different aspects of agriculture and horticulture, but aside from that there will be little formal training. This means there is little structural context for health and safety and risk management, and it is left to individual farms and farm owners to make sure best workplace practice happens.

Technology

Technology is rapidly changing the way farming happens, from the advent of driverless tractors, to the use of drones, to specific weather forecasting to all types of robotic feeding of animals. This use of technology brings with it additional risks, both in terms of the use of the technology itself, and the law of unforeseen consequences.Whilst many people embrace technology, and it can undoubtedly make a huge difference to the nature of farming, there is also a need for it to be managed in a businesslike context, a proper risk assessment done of its benefits and risks, and how its misuse could be seriously damaging.

It is really important in all types of technology, as with a lot of farm and agricultural machinery, that the people using it are of an age appropriate skill level, and where possible, they receive formal training, possibly online, to make sure they use it in a safe and appropriate manner.

Safety Culture – Nine Warning Flags – Factors That Defeat Controls

The implementation of an improved safety culture requires an almost Sherlock Holmes ability to use observation and logic to identify where underlying loss potential resides in the workplace. Just as Sherlock searched a crime scene, the OHS professional must be sensitive and aware of subtle clues that may not be quite discernible in the work environment. While the Job Hazard Analysis provides us with the structure and nature of individual job hazards and risk by providing a way to analysis the interactions of job requirements (steps and task, tools/equipment/materials, the work environment, current polices, procedures, etc., and the people exposed to the job), JHAs are not enough to assure that the controls put into place remain effective. Human Performance Improvement The US Department of Energy “Human Performance Improvement” Handbook discusses that 80% of loss producing events are human error and 20% are due to equipment failures. However, a further analysis of the 80% shows that 70% of these human errors are due to organizational weakness and 30% due to human error! This 70% represents “undetected deficiencies in organizational processes, equipment, or values that create job conditions that either provoke error or degrade the integrity of controls.” These latent errors are embedded in the organization.

A study by the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) refers to nine common weaknesses that can serve as as “warning flags” that can lead to serious incidents and degrade a safety culture. The INPO “concluded that these latent conditions are conducive to the degradation and accumulation of flawed controls and human-performance-related events.” These are warning flags of conditions that can defeat controls. Nine Warning Flags that can defeat controls within a Safety Culture While the Handbook is written for nuclear power operations, you use the flags with just a little interpretation to evaluate your workplace. Look for signs of the following nine warning flags that are adapted from the DOE Handbook:

  1. Overconfidence – The “numbers” are good, and the staff is living off past successes. Consequently, the staff does not recognize low-level problems and remains unaware of hazards.
  2. Isolationism – There are few interactions with other similar organizations, professional groups, regulatory and industry groups. Benchmarking is seldom done or is limited to “industrial tourism,” without the implementation of good practices learned. As a result, the organization lags the industry in many areas of performance and may be unaware of it.
  3. Defensive and Adversarial Relationships – The mind-set toward the regulatory agencies or professional groups is defensiveness or “do the minimum.” Internal to the organization, employees are not involved and are not listened to, and raising problems is not valued. Adversarial relationships hinder open communication.
  4. Informal Operations and Weak Engineering – Operations standards, formality, and discipline are lacking. Other issues, initiatives, or special projects overshadow plant operational focus. Engineering is weak, usually through a loss of talent, or lacks alignment with operational priorities. Design basis is not a priority, and design margins erode over time.
  5. Production Priorities – Important equipment problems linger, and repairs are postponed while the plant stays on line or in production. Safety is assumed and is not explicitly emphasized in staff interactions and site communications.
  6. Inadequate Change Management – Organizational changes, staff reductions, retirement programs, and re-locations are initiated before their impacts are fully considered. Recruiting or training is not used to compensate for the changes. Processes and procedures do not support strong performance following management changes.
  7. Plant Operational Events – Loss producing Event significance is unrecognized or underplayed, and reactions to events and unsafe conditions are not aggressive. Organizational causes of events are not explored in depth.
  8. Ineffective Leaders – Managers are defensive, lack team skills, or are weak communicators. Managers lack integrated plant knowledge or operational experience. Senior managers are not involved in operations and do not exercise accountability or do not follow up.
  9. Lack of Self-Criticism – Oversight organizations lack an unbiased outside view or deliver only good news. Self-assessment processes, such as management observation programs, do not find problems or do not address them; or the results are not acted on in time to make a difference.”

Safety Culture and Process Improvement An organization is the interaction of its beliefs, values, structure, the tools, equipment and materials in use, people, the social, physical and social environment necessary to reach its stated goals – the reason for its existence. Having an in-depth understanding and knowledge of all aspects of the organization, not just the safety rules and compliance criteria, is essential for a environmental, safety and health process to have a higher probability of achieving a successful safety culture over the long term.

References

US Department of Energy Human Performance Improvement Handbook, DOE-HDBK-1028-2009

Roughton, James, Nathan Crutchfield; Job Hazard Analysis. A Guide to Compliance and Beyond, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2008

Roughton, James; Developing an Effective Safety Culture: A Leadership Approach, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002.