‘Realistic, simple and doable’ is key to farm safety plan

Alberta AgSafe modelled on B.C. program that makes listening the cornerstone of its approach

Creating a good safety plan means listening to producers and building it up over time, says Reg Steward. 
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A safer farm begins with three questions, says a longtime farm safety consultant in B.C.

What’s the problem?
What have you done about it?
How can you prove it?

“We’re pretty good at ‘a’ and ‘b’ – we recognize the problem and we try to fix it, although sometimes we take shortcuts or monkey-fix it,” said Reg Steward.

“But we’re really very weak at ‘c’ but it’s ‘c’ which drives better results in ‘a’ and ‘b.’ So what we’ve tried to do is help people through incorporating the way that they do safety into the way they do business.”

In other words, there needs to be a better focus on record-keeping, but somehow that task — like all safety practices — needs to be incorporated in day-to-day work processes in order to not become cumbersome.

A good farm safety plan should be realistic, simple and doable, said Steward, who believes AgSafe — the B.C.-based organization he works for and the model for Alberta’s own AgSafe program — offers that with its boots-on-the-ground approach.

If there’s one thing Steward has learned in his 18 years of helping producers develop farm safety plans, it’s that it’s more important to listen to farmers instead of dictating what they should do.

Reg Steward has been involved in farm safety planning for nearly two decades. photo: Supplied

“The most important thing we can do is stop telling farmers what their problems are and start listening to them — find out what keeps them up at night,” he said. “Everybody has a different deal. It could be, ‘I have cowboys out there on the range and I worry about them working alone,’ or, ‘I worry about this young tractor operator because he’s always goofing around.’

“We see the cracks begin to form and we see people go, ‘You know what? You can solve that problem for me.’ I’m pretty happy about that.”

No smoking gun

Steward has also been involved in a number of investigations into farm accidents on behalf of insurance companies throughout Canada. What he’s found is that farmers are rarely purposely negligent, and it usually comes down to some combination of being complacent, rushed, or simply tired.

“There isn’t a particular practice that has run amok or people inherently doing things wrong or dangerously,” he said. “It isn’t that someone doesn’t necessarily know what they’re doing or they don’t do what they should do. It’s typically that they get in a hurry and might take a shortcut. They might just be too tired. They get into that complacent mentality where they fail to be on top of their game.”

Steward compares farm accidents to a set of dominoes — the key is understanding which domino tipped over the others.

“Take, for example, a tractor rollover where a whole bunch of things went wrong, but what really went wrong is the operator, on a tractor with a rollover protection structure, wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. If we take that domino out of it we have a totally different outcome.”

Don’t just create binders

So what makes a good safety plan?

Producers should start with the understanding that it’s a long-term thing and one that will likely change the culture of your farm over time, said Steward.

“To actually get a viable, fully implemented health and safety program that addresses things like orientation, meetings, training, inspection, competency determination — all of those things take time.”

That’s where AgSafe’s consultation program comes in.

“If I hand them a six-inch binder with all that stuff in it, nothing gets done. I walk them brick by brick, step by step through that and say, ‘OK, let’s start with pre-shift inspections on your mobile equipment,’ and give them a tool that’s easy to use and doable. So when I build that into a system and they do that for two or three weeks, they develop a habit and then you can add another layer.”

A good farm safety plan starts with integrating safety into everyday practices, including record-keeping, equipment inspections, and staff meetings. Safety checkoffs, for example, should be done at the same time as other documentation.

“We have to be on top of that stuff whether we like it or not,” said Steward. “Changing the culture is about making this as important as any other aspect of what you’re doing and when we begin by incorporating it into the way we do business, that’s when we make headway.”

However, that doesn’t mean record-keeping can’t be simple.

“We supply an adequate inspection checklist that captures what that producer is already doing, put it in a viable place for him to simply do his job and make some initials — 15 seconds is all we’ve asked him to add to what he’s doing. If we just give him a bunch of papers and it ends up on a shelf — that has never saved anybody’s life.”

One thing that complicates farm safety is the vast number of things most producers are responsible for.

“We have some unique issues in ag,” said Steward. “If you are a roofer you deal with one skinny little part of occupational health and safety regulations. If you are a rancher or a farmer, you deal with everything a roofer deals with; you deal with everything a trench digger has to do when he gets on his hoe; you deal with anything anyone in these subcontractor-type positions would have to do.

“So we have to make this really easy, accessible and doable.”

Making it work

Context is extremely important when introducing safety concepts, said Steward, who also works as a contract cowboy.

“If we have a tailgate meeting and the cow boss said, ‘Change your shoes on your horses, boys, because that hillside we’re working on next week is going to start to slick up,’ that’s a brilliant safety meeting.

“If that same cow boss takes us out in the middle of July and we’re getting out of our trailers someplace in the middle of nowhere and we’re going to be 12 hours on horseback and he starts to talk to us about fire extinguishers, we stand patiently and listen but he knows it’s stupid and we know it’s stupid because we’re not going to see a fire extinguisher.”

B.C.’s AgSafe, a 25-year-old farmer-led organization, was the model for AgSafe Alberta and Steward was heavily involved in setting it up.

“I would say in my entire health and safety career one of the greatest privileges I’ve had is the work and foundational baby steps of AgSafe Alberta,” he said.

“Very few agencies have a boots-on-the-ground solution to farm safety. I’ve spoken all over North America on that particular topic because people want to know how we get people who are unaccustomed to the rigours and regulations of a bona fide health and safety program to buy in. The concept of advisers or consultants which we’ve built our whole future on is the meat and potatoes and that’s the real value to the producer.”

Making health and safety a seamless part of the business process will, over time, change the image of the ag community in the eyes of urban consumers, he added.

“I think we are sometimes our own worst enemy by presenting an appearance that we – in some way — don’t care about health and safety because of the way we voice our arguments and protest against it. The person in the city looks at that and said, ‘These guys are just trying to skirt safety issues.’ That’s not the reality, so we need to be really strong in our message.”

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