Working safely on the farm is like getting ready to jump out of an airplane. You can’t afford to pack your parachute right only some of the time — you have to do it right every time.
That line of thinking is the same producers should be using in their safety procedures every day, safety expert Alan Quilley said during an AgSafe Alberta webinar last month.
“I went to a class where they taught me how to unpack my chute and how to land and steer. I asked (the instructor) how many jumps you have to make before you pass the course. He said, ‘All of them.’”
And skydivers always have a backup.
“You’re not going to say, ‘I’m so busy today; I think I’ll leave my secondary parachute at home.’”
There’s a tendency in the farm sector to take shortcuts — to work like the boss isn’t looking even if you are the boss, he added.
“Yes there are regulations and those regulations are making us do some things that maybe we want to do or maybe we don’t want to do,” said Quilley. “But the bottom line is we’re doing it for ourselves — not for the government. We’re doing it so we get to see our family grow up. And when you take that attitude it makes a difference.”
Between 2014 and 2019, a total of 122 people died from farm accidents in Alberta, and according to the Workers’ Compensation Board, there were 531 disabling injury claims in 2020 and 667 in 2019.
However, injury reporting can be misleading, said Quilley, president of Safety Results in Sherwood Park and one of the first OHS officers in Alberta. There are any number of near misses that are never reported because they don’t result in injury. However, they speak volumes about the culture of safety on an operation.
“There are lots of examples where we just get away with it,” he said. “You pull your hands away just in time. You do something where you duck out of the way just in time. That’s not safe just because you didn’t get hurt.
“We measure injuries but that’s not the whole story.”
So how can producers become smarter about farm safety?
The first thing is to recognize you have a problem, said Quilley. Identify the hazards, discuss them and manage them. One way to do this is to think about the relationship between energy sources, pathways and the person potentially in harm’s way. That could be mechanical or electrical energy (such as farm equipment), chemical energy (crop protection products, for example), or biological (a live animal).
“There’s a lot of energy on farms. And it’s big energy,” he said. “It’s no different than when I was working at the railroad. It’s no different than people working in construction or oil and gas. If these energies hit me they would hit me hard and would hurt me badly.”
The next step is to think about the path that energy is taking, he said.
“Am I standing in the way of the energy? If it released would it release into me? If so I either have to barrier myself or get out of there. I can’t let the pathway of that energy hit me.”
Frequently, those barriers — much to the chagrin of some farmers — include personal protective equipment (PPE), said Quilley.
“Boy we hate that stuff. Why would anyone want to wear a respirator? And we don’t. But we must,” he said.
“Wearing safety glasses is part of the diligence you’re going to need to protect yourself against those things that we can’t stop at the energy source or the pathway because we’re too close. Every time you use a grinder, you’re too close. You must wear the PPE. Don’t wear it some of the time — wear it all the time.
“Think about jumping out of an airplane: ‘I must do this’ and I must stop people who don’t do that and do so in a friendly way.”
Quilley’s philosophy on safety leadership is based on a famous quote: “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
So don’t expect employees or fellow workers to do anything you’re unwilling to do yourself, he said.
“If you’re going to ask people to protect themselves — whatever that protection might be, whatever that duty might be — make sure you understand that people are watching you. It matters what you do. It matters a lot. So if you’re going to be a leader, lead.”
One way to do that is to dispel the notion of ‘common sense’ and instead focus on ‘common knowledge,’ he said.
“Maybe you know something that the person you’re working with doesn’t. You can share that knowledge. That knowledge in effect is making (work) safer.
“If anyone tells you there’s such a thing as common sense they’re wrong. It’s not a superpower.”