Time is the enemy, particularly when it comes to injury risk, according to Henry Holtmann, of Rosser Holsteins outside of Winnipeg.
“In times when we think we don’t have time for safety, we have to really step back and make time, because the consequences of not making time are actually you lose more time,” he said.
Farm safety is a topic the mixed producer from Rosser, Man. has extensive, and unfortunately tragic, experience with.
In 1996, one year after Holtmann and his brother, Tony, bought their parents’ farm, their father was killed when the baler he was repairing ejected, pinning him below.
“For us, it was all of a sudden like, ‘Wow, we just lost one of the most experienced operators on the farm. Not only that, it was our father, of course, and, you know, third partner. Now what are we going to do?’” Holtmann recalled. “We hadn’t even had a year in this bold new partnership and this happened. So that really kind of made us think about things.”
Holtmann’s story is far from unique, and indicative of an industry that, despite recent decreases in fatalities and upswing in awareness around farm safety, still commonly ranks among the most dangerous jobs in Canada.
According to the latest data from the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA), there were 843 farm-related fatalities in Canada from 2003 to 2012, an average rate of 11.5 deaths per 100,000 farm population. Of those, 70 per cent involved machinery, 149 (18 per cent of all deaths) involved run-overs, 143 were chalked up to rollovers and 77 (nine per cent of total fatalities) were caused by being pinned or struck by equipment.
Being pinned or struck by an object (both machine and non-machine related) accounted for 162 deaths, with heavy machines not under power (26 fatalities), round bales (23 deaths) and other heavy non-machine objects (23 deaths) as the worst offenders.
Additionally, a full half of the 149 run-over deaths reported were caused by unmanned machinery left running or unblocked on a slope and over half, 62 per cent, involved a tractor.
“It’s this whole concept of managing the behaviour, of managing the risks and communicating in terms of following a procedure,” Glen Blahey, CASA agricultural health and safety specialist, said. “It becomes an issue of concern in terms of equipment not being properly disengaged and so on and the perception of, ‘I’m only going to do this for a moment and I’ll be right back.’”
But while those continued concerns exist, Blahey said he is encouraged by recent data, which showed a drop in farm-related fatalities.
Total fatalities are down over the last three decades, dropping from an average 116 deaths per year between 1990 and 2001 to 85 per year in the 11 years following, according to CASA.
Of the most common causes, deaths by rollover have decreased an average 3.6 per cent per year, while run-over fatalities have dropped 2.3 per cent annually.
Likewise, fatality rates from being pinned or struck by machinery plummeted an average 7.8 per cent per year between 2003-12.
“Occupational health and safety is being embraced far more in the agricultural sector currently than it has been previously,” Blahey said. “There’s a growing level of acceptance, an increasing level of understanding, in terms of occupational safety and health in fact being a risk management tool. Producers invest a lot of time and effort in terms of looking at their production cycles and looking at what they’re going to raise and how they’re going to raise it, how they’re going to manage it and so on, so that they can be as productive and efficient as possible. I sense that there are a growing number of producers who are recognizing that when an injury, when an incident occurs, it impacts the productivity of their operation.”
In Holtmann’s case, the growing awareness of farm safety came from the memory of losing his father, experience as a Dairy Farmers of Manitoba board member and impact of injury he observed in his own employees. On top of sympathy for the injured party, Holtmann pointed to the economic cost of having an employee off work, requiring replacement and retraining.
“If we could prevent that, certainly we would have a really healthy workforce, so that’s really what motivated us, and by no means are we perfect at it, but if you can prevent that simple little slip, like by stepping off a Bobcat and doing it properly versus jumping off, you’re going to save yourself lots of headaches from that event happening,” Holtmann said.
Rosser Holsteins, which works 2,500 acres and includes a 500-head dairy, employs about 15 staff over and above the Holtmann family. One family member heads safety programming and information, Holtmann said, while training sessions and job shadowing are provided for new hires, safety posters are put up, zones exist where protective equipment is mandatory and employees are informed that they are able to refuse unsafe work without retaliation.
The Holtmanns have identified several main areas of risk in their operation, starting with interaction between humans and animals and moving on through muscular/skeletal injuries, working with machinery and working with chemicals.
Animal interactions, in particular, have seen practices change in the Rosser operation.
According to the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, 65 animal-related deaths were reported from 2003-12, making it the most common cause of death not involving machinery and the fourth most common cause of all farm fatalities at eight per cent. Of those, 45 per cent involved cattle.
The risk has led Rosser Holsteins to give more consideration for staff unused to working with animals, to train for situations such as when the cows go into heat and to mark animals with aggressive behaviours.
“What we do now is we actually paint the ear tags red on the cow and identify it in the lunchroom and identify where that animal is so that people know that they have to keep an eye out for that individual and then when they see a red ear tag they know, ‘Oh, I better keep an eye on that one and never turn my back,’” he said.
While latest data shows fatalities dropping, information on farm injuries is more elusive.
Keith Castonguay, director of the Manitoba Farm Safety Program, pointed anecdotally to altered or removed equipment guards, moving PTOs and augers, equipment lockout and livestock as common causes for injury, but says he is waiting on statistics from the Workers Compensation Board and SAFE Work Manitoba.
Even then, he warned that any numbers he receives will be incomplete, as many farm injuries never get reported to those agencies.
“If you work in a factory, that’s all reported and then it comes out as a bulletin,” he said. “In the farm industry, with all the independent farmers that we have, there’s no process to report injury on a regular basis. And, to be fair, a lot of people value their confidentiality and so a lot of things that happen just aren’t being broadcast.”
It’s an issue Castonguay plans to bring forward in future meetings of the Manitoba Farm Safety Council, a new entity drawn from commodity groups and stakeholders. Eventually, he says, he hopes to promote increased injury reporting or use hospital data to gain better statistics.
In November 2016, the province and federal government announced $432,000 over the next two years for farm safety education and training. The newly minted Manitoba Farm Safety Program would be administrated by Keystone Agricultural Producers, and guided by the farm safety council, the government said. The initiative continued KAP’s existing efforts with on-farm safety consultations, a program that gathered steam under safety adviser Morag Marjerison.
Safety plan consultation and on-farm measurement of chemicals, noise or other concerns are also under the program’s mandate.
“We’re not an arm of government,” Castonguay said. “We respect confidentiality. When we come on site, we’re not about to report everything we see to the government in a compliance or regulatory role. We’re there to help, advise and support and to develop programs so that there is compliance in the future.”
The council has met once since it was announced in late 2016.