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Changing Farm “Work Culture” Key To Safety

Work is good. Hard work is better.

But the sheer need to do a lot of work, combined with the value farm culture places on it, gets in the way of creating a “culture of safety” in Canadian agriculture, say experts on organizational behaviour and workplace leadership.

Agriculture’s abysmal record of injuries and fatalities says it all: farmers clearly don’t pay much heed to personal safety and health in their workplace.

Disregard for it springs from a culture where work is paramount, and a key “expressed value,” of farm culture, says Sue Bruning, a professor of business administration at the I.H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba speaking at the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association’s (CASA) national convention in Winnipeg Winnipeg last week.

“Why don’t we do the right things? A lot of it is related to culture.”

She points out that even as agriculture ranks alongside mining and construction as a dangerous workplace and “work tough” culture, the latter two industries have arguably made more headway in reducing workplace injuries.

Agriculture’s problem is its “manifest culture,” says Bruning, evident in its group norms, cultural expectations and habits of thinking that place a very high value on work.


Changing that is key to developing more precautionary approaches to work, with higher regard for safety and health of workers, Bruning says.

In up to 85 per cent of workplace injury events, it is behaviour, not the inherent dangerous conditions of the workplace, that are the root cause.

“It’s because we didn’t connect the harness or wore the seatbelt or turned the machine off before we started handling it,” she said. “In only about 15 per cent of cases were the workplace conditions unsafe.”

And that sort of behaviour, which springs from attitudes towards work and how the job is done are part of culture. The expressed values and basic assumptions of farm work culture are summed up in statements like “it won’t happen to me,” or “I’ve done it this way all my life,” and in reproaches like “who do you think you are to tell me how I should do things,” adds Bruning.

Kevin Kelloway, Canada research chair in Occupational Health Psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, says the problem is compounded because farmers are accustomed to risk.

It’s not that anyone deliberately puts themselves or others in danger, says Kelloway “It’s just that you can’t see the hazards anymore. You just get used to them because they’ve been there so long.”


Yet changing cultural expectations is fundamental if any dent in the incidence of farm injuries and death is to be made.

What’s needed is leadership coming from within the farm community itself, say Bruning and Kelloway.

Leadership in safety takes the form of emphasizing and rewarding safe behaviour, offering direction and feedback on safe work procedures, and responding to safety concerns immediately, says Kelloway.

Safety leaders challenge the prevailing assumption that “sooner or later everyone gets hurt” or that “anyone who works here for any length of time is going to have some scars,” he said. Safety leaders encourage workers to work safer and behave in ways they expect others to behave.

The farmer who doesn’t wear protective personal equipment himself, or takes dangerous shortcuts, is sending a message of what he expects to everyone else he’s working with, said Bruning.

“If the boss emphasizes productivity that’s what everyone will focus on,” said Bruning. “On the other hand, if the boss emphasizes safety, that’s what people will focus on.”

Kelloway warns, however, of the “laissez-faire leader,” or those in charge who, while safety may be somewhere in the back of their minds, never addresses the matter directly and remains focused on other matters.

“Bad leadership is when the topic just never gets raised,” he said.


“I do think we need to look at how we can show by example,” says Doug Chorney, vice-president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, who heard Bruning’s and Kelloway’s presentations last week.

There’s been significant investment and consideration paid to agricultural safety by farm organizations in recent years, and he believes the younger generation of farmers are now preparing to play by new rules of the game.

Younger farmers do not find acceptable the prevalence of farm workplace injury to the extent an older generation has, Chorney said.

“I’m seeing a lot of push-back on that historical attitude.”

Chorney said organizations like KAP are also trying to offer this kind of leadership through offering initiatives that will help farmers create safer workplaces. A key project of KAP this winter will be rolling out the Safe Farm Check program to farmers across the province in a partnership the farm lobby has developed with MAFRI and the Workers Compensation Board.

“It remains to be seen this winter how it’s going to be picked up,” said Chorney. “But I think we’ve got some really good components coming together.”

Dean Anderson, chair of CASA, and regional director of Workplace Safety and Prevention Services in Western Ontario, also believes farm culture is changing, albeit slowly.

The three-year agricultural safety theme adopted by the industry, to “Plan. Farm. Safety” is “trying to add some momentum to it,” Anderson said.


A new resource unveiled at the CASA conference this month aims to get Canadian farmers thinking about safety in a different light. Planning for safety is about integrating approaches for improving safety and health into the overall business plan, and viewing safety as a sound investment.

They’re trying to change another mindset – that investments in a safer workplace is a net cost to the operation, said Anderson.

“You plan with your banker and your fertilizer company and your seed company and equipment dealer,” he said. “We want safety to be thought of the same way. It’s part of your business plan and your operating plan.”

Anderson said its unlikely that many farmers have any sort of documented safety plan.

“Probably less than 10 per cent,” he said. “Many may have one in their head. But the trouble with that is you can’t show it to anyone else.”

About 70 farmers, safety professionals, suppliers, trainers, manufacturers and researchers attended the three-day CASA conference at which speakers addressed a broad range of topics related to understanding what’s needed to support regional and national agricultural safety programs. [email protected]

About the author


Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.



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