New technologies mean new challenges for farm safety

The death and injury statistics tell the tale — agriculture remains one of Canada’s most dangerous professions. All the industry’s efforts to improve the situation haven’t made any difference.

In Alberta 16 people were killed in farm accidents in 2011 and three of them were under 18. Just as a comparison, among all the workers covered by Workers Compensation in Alberta, 43 people died in workplace accidents in 2010, the most recent year with figures available.

The Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) took new approaches and looked at new issues at their annual conference this month. Around 70 farmers, safety professionals, trainers, manufacturers and researchers participated.

CASA is a non-profit association dedicated to improving the health and safety of farmers, their families and workers across the country. It works with provincial groups and others, in some ways acting as an umbrella group for other agencies with an interest in farm safety. It also has the FarmSafe Foundation, a new charity arm to help finance new and ongoing farm safety activities.

Emerging farm safety issues were one part of the conference, including autonomous equipment such as auto-steer and driverless vehicles, and nanotechnology, which may be great advances for agriculture, but may also bring new hazards.

“We need to make sure that we understand the safety implications of these new technologies so we can control the hazards along the way,” said Marcel Hacault, executive director of CASA. “This conference is a great way for participants to get a snapshot of the future through the lens of a safety-first attitude.”

Nanotechnology concerns

Nanotechnology involves using microscopic particles for a huge variety of uses from stain-resistant clothes, to antimicrobial socks and tightly targeted anti-cancer therapies and pesticides. Over 1,000 nanotech products are already on the market and the number is expected to be four times that very soon.

Conference participants got a first look at the potential hazards of using some of these products. The fact that asbestos fibres, the cause of mesothelioma, a particularly nasty lung cancer, are considered nano-particles is a grim reminder that the new technology might come at a high cost unless their risk is managed.

The keynote speaker at the CASA conference was John McNamara, from the Irish Health and Safety Authority. In joining the European Union, Ireland has accepted regulations that apply to all workers, including prohibition of children under 16 operating or riding on farm equipment. “It was difficult for people to accept at first,” says McNamara. “But, we have made huge progress, the number of children who die in farm accidents is now very low. We’ve also seen a reduction in accidents among younger farmers, those under 55. But a rise among those over 55.”

National strategy

The conference also gave the farm safety community its first look at CASA’s new National Farm Safety Strategy. The document starts with goals and mission statements then identifies key priority areas for improving farm safety across Canada.

The strategic plan aims to change the culture of farm safety, the way farmers plan their operations and the way they act when something unexpected happens. “Our goal is farms that are safe places to work and to live,” says Hacault. “We want to help farmers see the risks in their operations and manage that risk so that no one in Canada is hurt farming.”

The plan is based on the notion that linking safety risks to other farm risks is part and parcel of managing the overall business risk of the agricultural operation.

The strategy proposes that a farm must manage safety risks like any other business, but with the added challenge of recognizing that for those living on a farm, they are in a workplace as soon as they step outside.

“We need a culture shift, a change in behaviour, but in thinking as well,” says Hacault.

McNamara agrees. “A safe farm is one where work is well organized,” he says. “Accidents are a failure of planning. When something goes wrong, farmers, who are used to being in charge, tend to act impulsively — and that’s when things can really go wrong.”

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