To stay on schedule, you need to get a group of finishing pigs loaded before the next trailer arrives. But first you need to clear the alley by moving a bulky piece of equipment that a previous crew left behind. You quickly bend at the waist and hoist.

A week later, recuperating from the serious back injury you sustained, you wish you could do that day over. Safety must be engrained in all workers, including you — it must be automatic.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the pork industry has double the average number of injuries and accidents among all industries.

While safety is a responsibility every employee must share, providing a healthy and safe workplace starts with the owner’s and manager’s commitment. Establishing a safety culture on your farm will help attract new employees, help retain long-term employees and may reduce insurance rates.

Accidents and injuries have many costs. “Workers get hurt on the job, which harms not only the person injured but costs time away from work, lost experience, reduced production efficiency, plus your insurance premiums will likely go up,” says Jim Lummus, education program manager, National Pork Board. Worst of all, accidents can cost people their lives.

A proactive approach requires identifying unsafe or hazardous conditions in every area of the operation. Shifting safety into automatic requires time and effort. It means making sure employees have the information, training, experience and supervision needed to do their jobs safely and effectively.

Most accidents on pork operations occur during animal/human interaction. While hogs are not typically aggressive, they can become dangerous if threatened or provoked, especially sows protecting a litter or boars used for stimulating estrus in sows. A spooked market hog is just the right size to injure knees. Some of the more common injuries include being stepped on, knocked down or pinned between the animal and a hard surface.

“Boars and sows can weigh more than 500 pounds,” says Joe McNertney, safety and biosecurity manager, Iowa Select Farms. “If they step on your feet or smash into your knees they can easily cause injuries or broken bones.”

McNertney recommends using sort panels when moving pigs. “Many times, sorting panels can prevent serious injuries,” he adds.

Make pigs aware of your presence to avoid startling them. Understanding pig behavior is your most valuable asset, as it helps you anticipate pig movement. Inexperienced employees are particularly vulnerable. Have them shadow experienced employees, and always check up on them. Be particularly attentive in pens of market-weight hogs, where unexpected movements or noises can lead to crowding that can result in injury to your legs and knees or even knock you down. Never enter a pen without protective foot wear such as steel-toed work boots.

Always lift with care. Before you begin, assess the situation; you may need help from a coworker or mechanical device such as a forklift or wheel cart.

 “Teaching and practicing safe lifting techniques is very important,” says LaMar Grafft, safety specialist, University of Iowa. Before lifting heavy objects, slowly squat down by bending your knees. Never stoop or bend from the waist. Then, keeping your back straight, slowly straighten your legs until you are standing upright.

“Many injuries on swine farms involve slips and falls,” Grafft adds. Preventing that starts with keeping aisles and walkways clean, clear and dry. 

Good housekeeping is the first step in maintaining a safe work environment. Make sure spills are cleaned up promptly; drying materials like lime or sawdust can help. Keep barns clutter-free and always put tools away when you’re finished. Place hazardous materials, such as chemicals, medicines and syringes, in appropriate and secure storage areas.

Hazardous dusts and gases induce the strongest and most frequent human respiratory responses in swine confinement buildings. Workers with long-term exposure can develop chronic problems such as lung damage, particularly if they are smokers. Dust levels increase whenever animals are fed, handled or moved.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center will be studying the prevention and treatment of lung disease in workers at hog farms. According to the researchers, about one-third of workers at swine farms develop bronchitis, asthma or something more severe.

Gases, including methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, also require attention. Workers need to follow strict protocols during manure-pumping operations to avoid injury or death of people and pigs. (Go to http://bit.ly/fE1qnM.)

Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health provides information on the proper use of respirators on swine farms. (Go to http://bit.ly/glc0yA for more.)

Noise levels in swine barns can exceed 95 decibels and pose another safety risk. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s limit for noise exposure is 90 decibels over an eight-hour work shift. While the noise in a hog facility isn’t constant, hearing protection is recommended during piglet processing and at feeding time, particularly in sow barns.

Since many barn materials are flammable, good housekeeping is essential to fire prevention. Start by properly storing flammable and combustible materials, McNertney says.

Dust and debris can easily collect on ventilation fans and fan motors, causing them to overheat, so include regular maintenance and cleaning of those items on your schedule.

"Fires are often associated with heaters and electrical wiring,” says Paul Sundberg, DVM, NPB vice president of science and technology. “We recommend that producers get professional assistance on servicing these items yearly to make sure they are functioning properly.”

Any heat-generating device such as space heaters and heat lamps must be used carefully and kept away from flammable items. All wiring should be installed by a professional and protected from the elements, animals and rodents.

For effective fire prevention, every employee must be watchful. Everyone should be constantly vigilant for damaged wiring and burned outlets and report them immediately so they can be repaired.

If you haven’t yet developed an official safety program for your farm or if you need to review and update yours, you can get some guidance from NPB’s Pork Production Safety System. It provides recommendations on specific safety topics for working swine operations. (Go to http://bit.ly/g8QGgb.) NPB also will have safety-assessment sheets available on its website, pork.org, this month.

There are many resources available for expert safety guidance. The National Ag Safety Database provides an extensive list of farm-safety topics and resources. You can access those at http://bit.ly/OBLot.

Minimize accidents by taking a proactive approach and identifying present and future unsafe or hazardous conditions throughout the operation. Hold a “safety first” meeting on your farm and review safety protocols and concerns. Encourage suggestions to improve safety consciousness and conditions.

When you hire new personnel, make sure each person receives safety training for his/her job as well as the farmstead overall. Define specific responsibilities to effectively enforce all safety policies, procedures and programs. Instruct employees that they are your eyes and ears and that they need to report problems immediately when they spot them.

Make safety an important focus in all your operations. Devote the time it requires to make it automatic. In the end, the ultimate goal is a safe workplace for all.