During a facility audit, seemingly little things like missing covers on electrical outlets will raise big issues with OSHA personnel.

It’s not the kind of surprise you want to get at 5:30 a.m. Imagine having a disgruntled employee report your farm to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, prompting two men from the agency to show up at your farm gate — unannounced — for what turns out to be an 11-day inspection. This scenario occurred several years ago at a large sow operation west of the Mississippi. (The producer has chosen to remain anonymous.) Those involved say the costly lessons learned are something that all pork producers should heed sooner versus later. 

“To OSHA, it’s the little things that make a big difference, from electrical outlets missing covers to door latches that don’t close properly,” notes one of the managers. “On the first visit they’ll slap everything they can against you, and then they try to educate you about ways to improve.”

OSHA’s efforts to take a hard stand started immediately, the manager adds. Representatives used the intimidation factor to prompt employees to permit immediate access to the farm. During their investigation, OSHA personnel used cameras, video recorders and notebooks to record all of the safety violations they found. The extensive documentation could be used in a court of law if the case went to trial. Six months after the investigation, the farm received OSHA’s complete list of safety citations and options on how to resolve the issues. While the parties in this case settled out of court (as most do), it took months to resolve the problems. That included follow-up visits from OSHA to ensure that safety violations were being corrected and that changes to the farm’s safety policies were being reported.

“It cost us a lot of lost time when the investigation was taking place, and OSHA intimidates you into focusing on safety,” the manager says. “It was a tough thing to go through, but we definitely made changes to improve safety.”

Sherman Williamson, an OSHA safety engineer in Washington, D.C., stresses that the agency has no site-specific targeting program intended to “punish” swine farm operators. “We’re not out to get you. Our goal is always to help make the workplace as safe as possible.”

Safety ties into profitability

Since OSHA cannot inspect all of the millions of U.S. workplaces each year, the agency tries to focus its inspection resources on the most hazardous workplaces, notes James Wright, an agricultural and biosystems engineering specialist at Iowa State University. OSHA addresses these in order of priority, including imminent danger situations where hazards could cause death or serious physical harm; fatalities and catastrophes; complaints and allegations of hazards or violations; and referrals of hazard information from other federal, state or local agencies, individuals, organizations or the media.

While the importance of safety in agriculture receives a lot of lip service, there’s a big reason why more farms aren’t putting it into action. “While we’ve grown past labor being supplied by the family, we haven’t kept up with the need for standard operating procedures, safety meetings, emergency action plans and safety documentation,” says Leonard Meador, an agricultural consultant and chief executive officer of Global Eco-Tech (www.globalecotech.com/) in Rossville, Ind. “Producers don’t realize the implications of this, and unfortunately the big wake-up call often doesn’t come until an unfortunate incident happens.”

The situation is further complicated when, increasingly, the workforce does not have an agricultural background, Meador adds.

Still, safety impacts your farm’s profitability since it protects the health of you and your employees, prevents downtime and protects your physical assets, including animals, buildings and equipment.

A safety assessment conducted by a third party can help you view your farm with a new set of eyes. When Global Eco-Tech conducts on-site assessments, common safety issues to be addressed include:

  • Open access to pits and pull plugs.
  • Clutter and a lack of general housekeeping, which leads to dust on motors and other equipment.
  • A lack of accessible and functioning fire extinguishers within the facilities.
  • No emergency action plan.
  • Open panel boxes on electrical panels.
  • Taped electrical connections instead of proper wire nuts.
  • Inadequate rodent control. “While rodents cause a biosecurity risk, they also pose structural risks, since they can chew electrical wires, and their urine and fecal material can corrode panel boxes,” Meador says.
  • Dirty gas-powered heaters, which can pose a fire risk.
  • Improper or inadequate machine guards.

The farm that received the OSHA inspection has become a proponent of third-party safety audits, including an annual electrical inspection. “If you have an audit, follow the suggestions given,” the manager stresses.

Take action now

Simple changes for preventive and corrective action can put you on the right track toward a safe farm. “Remember, the person who has the documentation has a distinct advantage,” Meador notes. Try these tips to get started:

  • Include well stocked first-aid kits in each swine facility. Check these kits periodically to make sure items are in place and in good shape.
  • Hold a monthly safety meeting to open the lines of communication. Listen to your employees’ concerns about safety, Meador says. He notes that an effective safety meeting can run as short as half an hour. Be sure to document each meeting.
  • Document your emergency action plan. Anticipate what safety risks could occur, make a plan and make sure that all your employees understand the plan.
  • Establish one place to store all safety records, including Material Safety Data Sheets, an emergency action plan and other such documents. Make sure your employees know where to find this information.
  • If you have non-English-speaking employees, seek out safety materials that they can understand. For example, the National Pork Board has created safety materials in Spanish. (See sidebar.)
  • “No producer wants a safety issue to occur at his or her farm, but in the daily hustle and bustle, most producers just don’t stop to think about preventive care,” Meador says. “That is still the key to safety.”

TOP FARM HAZARDS

Here are the most frequently cited safety issues on U.S. farms, according to Sherman Williamson, a safety engineer with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

1) Lockout/tagout

2) Electrical safety

3) Hazard communication

4) Respirator standards

5) Powered industrial trucks

6) Machine guarding

7) Walking and working surfaces (including fall protection)

8) Abrasive wheel grinding

9) Noise standards.


OSHA OFFERS FREE CONSULTATION

If you’d like to find out about potential hazards around your farm, improve your occupational-safety and health-management systems, and even qualify for a one-year exemption from routine OSHA inspections, take advantage of OSHA’s free consultation service. For more information, follow this link .

Employers who participate in the On-Site Consultation Program may seek recognition under OSHA’s Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program for exemplary safety and health programs. For more details, follow this link.


SAFETY MATERIALS IN SPANISH

The first step toward a safe work environment is becoming aware of potential hazards through training. There are alots of sources-- universities, consultants, insurance agents — for safety materials. Among those are the National Pork Board’s Pork Production Safety System materials.

Developed with input from pork producers, swine farm safety officers and an OSHA consultant, the materials are concise, interactive and user-friendly. The set contains materials for trainers, including an instructor CD and a DVD with video clips that can be used to customize any production safety presentation.

The Employer Resources CD also can be used to develop a safety manual for your farm, including:

  • Safety responsibilities
  • A safety policy statement
  • An emergency action plan
  • Information on slips, trips and falls
  • Confined space program
  • Fire prevention and protection
  • Electrical safety
  • Respiratory health and safety
  • Animal handling
  • Many other key safety topics.

The safety kit, which is available with translation for Spanish-speaking employees, is free to U.S. pork producers. You can order it at www.pork.org . Click on the “Pork Store” link in the homepage’s upper right corner or call (800) 456-7675.