New technology brings new risks to the farm, say experts

Advances — from needleless injectors to auto steer — 
make farming easier, but also have safety implications

The people who design new farm technology often have no understanding of what goes on at a farm, said pork producer Curtiss Littlejohn.
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New technology brings many advantages to the farm, but can also result in unintended hazards, both for farmers and animals.

This was stressed numerous times during presentations on technology at this year’s Canadian Agricultural Safety Association annual general meeting.

  • Read more: AgSafe Alberta offering free safety programs for farmers

“There’s a lot of routine work on farms and a lot of incidents happen because of routine,” said Daan Stehouwer, a regional service manager with Lely North America.

“My approach in training, when I’m talking to technicians and also with farmers, is to explain why. We spend a lot of time in our trainings to explain the why of these things. Just putting a sticker somewhere that you can lose your finger doesn’t seem to be as effective as always training, and repeating that.”

New technology in agriculture is also bringing new hazards.

Catherine Trask, an associate professor and ergonomist at the University of Saskatchewan, is currently working on a project with needleless injections in hog barns with the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture.

Because they use pressure to inject drugs through the animal’s skin instead of a needle, the devices greatly reduce the risk of blood-borne pathogens being transmitted from animals to the person delivering the injection. But since needleless injectors can be used at a more rapid pace, there’s a greater risk of repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Occupational health and safety isn’t always on the radar when new technologies are introduced, said Trask.

Technology can have unintended safety consequences on the farm, said Catherine Trask of the University of Saskatchewan. photo: Alexis Kienlen

“We don’t always have good evidence and good information on the potential impacts of these technologies,” she said. “That can prevent folks from incorporating it into their decisions.”

While the drawbacks of using a needleless injector may quickly become apparent because of a sore wrist (or an aching back from bending over more often), the perils of other new technologies may not be.

Take, for example, the new combine. Auto steer means operators can spend a lot more time in the cab and that comfy seat may disguise another risk.

“Whole body vibration is a risk factor for back disorder and back pain and so is extensive static sitting,” said Trask.

Pork producer Curtiss Littlejohn described himself as a poster child for what not to do in agriculture.

In his three decades of farming, he has suffered broken hands and concussions, and even fractured his ribs when falling off a sow, he said.

Many people don’t know how to look for hazards in their own barn, he said, pointing to dangers as diverse as automatic doors (which can pinch animals or humans) and rusty edges.

“If you ever want to test how good your immune system is, go scratch yourself on a piece of rusty steel in a hog barn,” he said. “If it’s not pussing within three hours, either it’s not very dirty or you didn’t do a good job (of getting scratched).”

Stainless steel, plastics, and other materials that don’t corrode are not only safer but will last longer, said Littlejohn, who is also swine products manager with Canarm Ag Systems, a maker of agricultural livestock housing and ventilation equipment.

New technology isn’t just about machinery and devices, but also new management systems, which also introduce hazards to the workplace, said Littlejohn, a former chair of Ontario Pork.

For example, group housing requires workers to have a deep understanding of the behaviour of hogs.

“You end up with workers in a pen situation where they are not completely understanding what the animals’ thoughts are or what the animals’ behaviours are, so it’s another level of training that we need to bring into the workplace,” he said.

Bringing automation to barns can also result in unintended consequences, including having workers who have a good understanding of computers and technology, but less exposure to livestock and farm life, he said. As well, people designing equipment for farming activities don’t really understand what goes on at a farm, he said.

New technology is creating “an industrial revolution” on farms and producers need to be constantly thinking about the safety implications that involves, said Trask.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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