Safety must be top winter priority
I have lived my whole life in agriculture in North Dakota and South Dakota. Dealing with the cold weather and all the weather conditions that come with it was something I took for granted. As I did some research for this article, I was surprised to learn that accidents and fatalities increase 17% in the winter.
As we think about our farm teams, we likely have some employees who – like me – need reminders of the dangers winter can bring. Others may have very little experience working in the cold and need proper training to work safely through the season ahead. Here are a few reminders for working safely this winter.
1. Communicate with your team.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) discusses cold stress as a condition that can lead to injuries and illnesses due to low temperatures. Winter weather can also cause accidents such as slips, trips and falls. Use regular employee meetings to remind your team about these potential hazards.
Reinforce the need for good communication among the staff to keep the farm operating. The changing weather and slippery and snowy roads make it more difficult to get to work. It’s a good idea to talk about these situations and the best way to deal with them as they occur. Have a plan for the unexpected situations that we face during this time of year.
Short days mean employees are more likely to travel to the farm in the dark and that could also be during snowy conditions. Encourage them to keep a snow shovel, extra blanket, flashlight (with good batteries), food such as candy bars, and (unfrozen) water in the car. Also encourage them to keep the gas tank full.
Remind employees to charge their cell phones. Have employees call a teammate or manager if driving to the farm in poor road conditions or have them call family if driving home on bad roads. Help can be sent if they don’t arrive at the expected time.
2. Dress properly.
Dress properly during winter months to reduce exposure to cold weather. Clothing should be your first consideration when working in below-freezing temperatures. As in summer months, avoid wearing loose-fitting clothes – especially while working around PTO equipment – to avoid severe injuries. When you dress in layers, it traps air between the layers and forms a protective insulation. Wear warm gloves and keep a second pair in reserve in case they get wet. Because 40% of your body heat can be lost when your head is exposed, wear a suitable hat that protect your head, ears, and face in extreme conditions. A hood can further protect your neck, head, face and ears.
Keeping your feet warm and dry is key to keeping your body warm, so be sure to wear appropriate footwear with warm socks. Footwear should not fit too tightly, which could reduce blood flow to the feet and increase the risk of cold injury.
3. Take breaks
It’s important to take more breaks when working in extreme cold conditions. Do this to allow the body to warm up, reduce exhaustion and avoid frostbite. Drink warm, sweet beverages to avoid dehydration and maintain energy.
4. Think and practice safety in the feed center.
Practice and think safety in all that you do in every season. Fewer daylight hours, windy conditions, ice, and snow reduce visibility and make it more challenging to work around the feed center. Keep the feed center well lit, use headlights and wear high-visibility clothing. Don’t rush; work slowly and cautiously.
Preparing equipment for winter is the best way to avoid costly repairs and delays, particularly in feeding the herd or cleaning pens. Refer to the owner’s manuals for winterizing recommendations. Follow the maintenance schedule for oil and filter changes. Store equipment inside if possible or under cover to protect it from the elements. It’s helpful to have a block heater on trucks and tractors to better ensure they will start in the morning – especially on those sub-zero mornings. Give your equipment enough time to warm up before getting started with the day’s work. Reduce the debris around the feed/commodity center as it helps reduce snow drifts and the amount of snow you have to move.
Practice the “buddy system,” especially during jobs of cutting back the plastic on the silage piles and removing tires. These tasks should never be performed by just one person. Today’s silage piles tend to be tall and the surface is slippery. Be conscious of the silage face and the potential of a collapse. Have a cell phone readily accessible in case an accident and/or injury occurs and you need to call for help.
As I mentioned, I’ve lived in “the north country” my entire life. I love the changes of the four seasons. And every season has its blessings and its challenges. It’s all a matter of adapting to those seasonal changes – slow down, err on the side of caution and ALWAYS practice safety.