Don’t just rely on your cellphone when working alone on the farm

Farm Safety Week: Old-school tech, GPS devices and careful planning can come through if your cellphone fails you

A cellphone is a great safety device when working alone — as long as it’s charged, there’s reception 
where you’re working, and there’s someone you can call who can quickly come to your aid in case of an accident.
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Cellphones have made it easier for producers to communicate on the job — especially ones working alone.

In the event of an injury, a one-touch emergency cell call can mean the difference between life and death.

But as great as cellphones may be, they’re not the be-all and end-all of an on-farm communications plan. Congratulations are in order if you’ve never left the house without charging your cell battery, but most of us have. Perhaps more significantly, there are still cellular dead spots throughout rural areas and if you find yourself stuck or injured in one of them, you could be in trouble.

“Just because you have reception at the farmyard doesn’t mean you will have it out in the field,” said Robert Gobeil, a health and safety specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

“I have a seasonal campsite about an hour east of Winnipeg that is just off the No. 1 highway. You get 100 yards off the highway and you have zero bars for cell reception. It doesn’t take long to get out of cell range.”

Farmers should have a backup communications device in the event of cellular failure, he said. These range from newer tech such as GPS-based location devices to old-school two-way radios.

However, communication devices are just one part of an overall safety plan when working alone, said Gobeil.

Others include developing check-in plans, identifying situations in which you should never work alone, and generally making the experience of working alone as safe as possible.

And your best bet could be reaching out to others.

“They call it a buddy system for a reason, so call on your friends and neighbours,” he said. “I understand in a farm situation — especially on the smaller mom-and-pop operations — that good help is hard to come by. But sometimes you need to slow down to speed up as well.”

When to never work alone

There are situations in which producers should never work alone and few would come of much surprise.

Working alone in confined spaces such as grain bins and manure pits is a big one, said Gobeil, noting there’s an average of six to eight fatalities across Canada every year from grain bin entrapment alone.

“Often your stereotypical story is someone is using their (auger) equipment and the grain inside the bin is out of condition and the flow stops. The producer looks both ways and there is no one else around so they decide to go in and unfortunately do not make it out.

“That story plays out far too often.”

Another is large livestock handling.

“There are stories about livestock handling where a farm worker gets trampled. There may be more to it than working alone — it may have to do with the design of chutes and head gates and things like that. But often they are working alone.”

Other examples include working at heights, working in extreme temperatures, heavy lifting and other excessive labour, such as removing tractors or other large equipment from mud.

“Often people have an ‘It will only take a minute’ mindset so they don’t plan ahead,” said Gobeil.

Secondary communications options

If you’re going to work alone, you need to have the right equipment. A running theme in Gobeil’s backup communications suggestions is their lack of dependence on internet or cellular capability. GPS devices do not require internet to work and — obviously — neither do two-way radios.

Here are some pros and cons of a handful of secondary communications devices.

  • Two-way radios: Classic ‘walkie-talkies’ have been around for ages but Gobeil is a big fan.

“A lot of them have a really long range and you don’t need a ton of reception. As long as there is a person on the other end of the radio they work,” he said.

They are also relatively inexpensive.

“Of course, the more you spend the longer the range you get, but most of them have a range of at least a mile.”

Two-way radios share some drawbacks with cellphones. They need to be charged, for example, and are not rated for extreme temperatures. However, farmers should avoid working alone in extreme temperatures if at all possible, said Gobeil.

  • Lone worker safety devices: These devices allow lone workers to be found via GPS if they’re lost or injured. They come in a variety of formats, including stand-alone devices and smartphone apps.

Their big upside is their use of GPS as a key tool. On the downside, these devices tend to be pricey and subscription based, which means users have to keep track of renewals or auto-renews depending on if they want to continue using the service or not.

  • Personal mobile alarms: When activated, these GPS-based, one-touch devices send an emergency alert to pre-set mobile numbers or a 24-hour monitoring service. Also known as life alarms, they are usually worn around the neck like a piece of jewelry.

Because personal mobile alarms come with a number of different capabilities depending on the specific product, it’s hard to declare across-the-board advantages aside from GPS functionality. However, Gobeil said many feature fall detection and 911 calling capabilities. Many have no monthly monitoring fees.

Price-wise, they tend to fall on the expensive side, he said. On a more visceral note, wearing a necklace is not always conducive to farm work and may create an entanglement hazard.

Another possible drawback is that personal mobile alarms rely on a personal network, said Gobeil.

“Having a personal network could really be good or bad — depending how you look at it — because it relies on friends and family. They may not know what to do in the event of an emergency and it can cause worry and stress to the contacts.”

Best practices

  • Develop safety procedures: Have a farm safety plan that is co-ordinated between employers and employees. The Canadian Agricultural Safety Association offers online, in-person and customized training while AgSafe Alberta offers on-farm advisory and a host of other tools. Canadian Ag Safety Week is March 15-21 this year and numerous resources can be found at

“(These procedures) don’t have to be overly formal but you should have a plan in place,” said Gobeil. “Part and parcel with that would be training your workers — or others who would be using the procedures — and as an operator ensure that workers comply with the procedures.”

  • Have a check-in plan: Employers and employees agree to inform a designated person both when they have started and finished a task. These should be tailored to the risk of the task at hand, said Gobeil.

“The risk of simple operation of a combine in a remote location is relatively minor, so you would probably just want to check in when you get to the field to start work and then check in when you’re done.”

  • Minimize the potential for working alone: Working with someone isn’t a guarantee that injuries can’t happen, but at least you will have a second set of eyes, ears and legs to help minimize the potential for something going awry. Gobeil recommends assessing and reducing situations where you may have to go it alone.

“If we aren’t working alone we don’t have to worry as much about checking in and checking out.”

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