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You’re only human — but are you willing to admit it?

The odds of an accident during the gruelling harvest season go up sharply if you don’t take these safety precautions

Are you getting worn down by the harvest grind?

If you didn’t answer ‘yes’ to that question, then you’re either not being honest or you’re missing the signs of fatigue.

“It’s not a badge of honour to say how long and how hard and how many days it’s been since you’ve taken a holiday,” said Kevin Serfas, who farms near Turin. “That state of mind boggles me a little.”

Experts like Donna Trottier of AgSafe Alberta wholeheartedly agree.

Her organization has a “quick start guide” for dealing with fatigue. The four-page primer says that being fatigued is four times more likely to lead to an accident than being impaired by drugs or alcohol.

In fact, pulling an all-nighter is much like having a few too many.

Donna Trottier.
photo: Supplied

“Being awake for 21 hours is the safety equivalent of someone legally impaired by alcohol,” said Trottier, AgSafe’s program director. “It really has an impact on your performance.”

One of her top tips is to “work smart.”

“If everybody is worn out, it’s better to shut it down and start again fresh in the morning than have an incident occur,” she said.

That’s one of the ironclad rules for Serfas, who farms with his father and brother, and has up to 30 employees during seeding and harvest.

“We get going in the morning and usually by 10 or 11, I want everybody to be back home,” he said. “You can’t function off four hours of sleep for two weeks straight.”

Having a large crew gives Serfas more options when it comes to building in breaks and days off into the schedule, but what do you do if it’s just you?

“If I’m really tired, I will take a nap,” said Charlie Leskiw, who runs his operation — a grain farm and small cattle herd near St. Paul — by himself.

The past couple of years have been challenging, and when times are stressful, getting a good night’s sleep is even more important, he said. And while he’ll push things a bit, there’s a limit.

“If conditions are good to harvest, I will combine until midnight or later,” said Leskiw. “When conditions are right, you keep going. After ambition, then adrenaline kicks in.

“But if the eyelids start drooping, it’s time for a nap.”

Taking breaks is another of Trottier’s top tips.

“Plan your day so that you can take some breaks, whether that is having someone spell you off so you can take a break, or just shut down for a little bit if you have to,” she said.

That recommendation is intertwined with another top tip — keep your equipment in good shape. That not only means your machinery, but also your own body.

“Give yourself good nutrition and rest — that’s the best way to manage fatigue,” said Trottier.

The former means ditching junk food and caffeinated beverages in favour of healthy meals and snacks along with hydrating with water.

AgSafe also urges farmers to get out of the combine once in a while — take a little walk in the field and do some stretching. It’s a good way to both get the blood flowing and one of the ways to assess how you’re doing.

“There’s this thought that you need to make hay while the sun shines and to an extent that’s true,” said Serfas. “But I mean, you’re dealing with human beings and you can only push people so hard.”

One thought looms large when Serfas is planning the harvest schedule.

“We have lots of students from Europe and Australia. We never want to make a phone call back home to say that something has happened to one of their kids.”

On most farms, the kids are your own and bringing them to the field during harvest is something virtually every family does. But be smart about it, said Trottier.

“If the crew is tired, that’s not a good time to bring the kids out to the field,” she said. “Plan those visits with children coming to the field to experience harvest when a lot of attention can be placed on the kids. Do it early in the day, when people aren’t worn out and tired.”

That’s part of Trottier’s final top tip: “Avoid distraction.”

“Minimize the distraction so you can focus on the job at hand,” she said. “That can mean not bringing the kids to the field at certain times, and minimizing the use of cellphones. That can also mean not having people out on the field who aren’t participating in that activity. Avoid that and eliminate that distraction.”

Leskiw gets some help from neighbours, but is largely on his own. So he follows AgSafe’s recommendation to “continually assess” his fatigue level.

“That’s always in the back of my mind,” he said. “Never keep working to the extent that you’re actually putting yourself at risk or in harm’s way, or at the risk of an accident.

“I say caution is key.”

Part of that should include striking a deal with family members and others on the farm to watch out for each other. Better yet is to appoint someone as a “fatigue champion.”

“They might not bring it up themselves, so it’s good to have someone to ask people, ‘Are you OK? Are you good to go on?’” said Trottier.

If that question sparks an irritable ‘of course I am,’ it’s a sign the truth might be the opposite. Being short tempered is an indicator of fatigue. Other signs include an upset stomach, headaches, blurred vision, slow reflexes, poor concentration, and, of course, dozing off.

For more tips on working safe this harvest, see AgSafe’s guide: Fatigue Management on the Farm. It can be found in the Resources section of www.agsafeab.ca.

For Serfas, dealing with fatigue can be summed up very simply.

“We work hard, but we don’t work stupid.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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