In 2001, the livestock industry had an injury/illness incidence of 9.2 cases per 100 workers. Nearly 4.5 of those cases resulted in missed work, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. For comparison, coal mining had a 6.9 injury/illness incidence per 100 workers, 4.9 of which resulted in missed work. Worker injuries and missed time can be costly to your operation.

“Aside from the monetary costs, a workers’ compensation claim can take the manager’s attention away from the production system by requiring more paperwork and resolving conflict in the workplace,” says Sarah Fogleman, Kansas State University agricultural economist.

Workers’ compensation coverage may seem expensive, but it pales in comparison to the financial and legal troubles you could face if an employee is injured and you don’t have insurance. Besides, the law requires coverage.

Fogleman compares workers’ compensation to home-owners’ insurance. Most people hope their house never burns down, but if it ever happens they are glad for the insurance. In the same way, no one wants an employee to be injured, but if it does happen, you better have workers’ compensation coverage.

Your insurance agent can offer details on what coverage you need. Other information sources include local attorneys, accountants, business planners, Chambers of Commerce or Small Business Bureaus, says Fogleman.

After you have coverage, you should train all your employees about the hazards of their jobs and the safe ways to perform those tasks. It is also vital to record your training procedures. Your insurance company can help you determine what training records you need to keep.

“Determining whether an employee is adequately trained is always a big issue in worker’s compensation claims,” says Bob Aherin, University of Illinois agricultural engineer. “You should train all employees at least once annually, even if they’re experienced.”

If an injury occurs, contact your insurance company immediately. You will need to file a “first report of injury,” which you can get from your insurance company. Other requirements vary by state, says Roxy Braband, workers’ comp director for Grinnell Mutual Insurance. Once the paperwork is done, there are some additional things to do.

Follow up with the employee to tell him how much you want him back, when he’s able. “The employer should then get a doctor’s note saying what the employee can and cannot do upon his return,” says Braband. “Studies show that the sooner an employee returns to work the faster and better he will recover.”

There were three main causes of workers’ compensation claims in the pork industry:

1. Lifting dead pigs. “The most common way to avoid injury when lifting dead pigs is to use a carcass cart,” says Perry Hartmann with Hog Slat.

A typical cart has about a 5-foot frame on two wheels, and has a winch. This lets you crank the animal up and out of a sow crate, depending upon variables like the animal’s size and body position.

“If you are lifting a dead pig between 50 and 75 pounds, make sure you get a good grip, bend at the knees and lift with your legs,” says Aherin. Pigs weighing more than that require two people or a mechanical device. “If you have to lift the pig above your waist, make sure you have good footing, with your legs about shoulder width apart.”

He warns that a back injury from improper lifting could turn into a long-term problem. A ruptured disk is a worst-case scenario, but well within the realm of possibility.

2. Power washing. There are several tips that can make this a much safer job.

“Don’t ever wire the trigger open,” says Hartmann. “New easy-squeeze handles that work like vice-grip pliers, make the trigger easy to hold open.”

Some of the older power-washer wands have a ball-valve rather than a trigger. These do not turn off easily. Also, the new zero-degree rotary tips can be dangerous, says Hartmann. These washers have enough pressure to cut a two-by-four board, so it could do a lot of damage to skin. He also recommends wearing safety glasses and rain suits when power washing.

This task can be dangerous for other reasons. Chuck Schwab, Iowa State University agricultural engineer, says you should never use any type of combustion engine-powered power washer in a confined room. Those types of power washers release carbon monoxide, which is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas, but the fumes can cause health problems and even death.

Electrocution is another danger both Schwab and Aherin warn against when power washing. Make sure all outlets have ground-fault circuit

3. Pigs running into or over you. This could happen when handling boars; moving, sorting or loading finishing pigs; or handling sows.

When moving boars to heat check sows, Hartmann advises against using collars because boars don’t like being led around by a leash. There’s nothing to prevent a boar in a collar from walking backward over an employee or pulling an employee down. Hartmann recommends using a mechanical assistant, controlled by a remote, when heat checking. 

When it comes to moving finishing pigs, patience is key.

“Don’t move more than three to five hogs at a time,” says Hartmann. “Make sure you can stay in contact with the lead hog, so it can’t turn around on you.”

Also, remember that the pigs have never walked out a door, so you need to remove any obstacles that

might make them balk. This could include something as simple as a bright light or a reflection.

“Take the hogs through chutes and alleyways with solid sides,” says Aherin. “This keeps the hogs focused on where they are going.”

New automatic-sorting scale systems also have the potential to reduce injuries and make hogs easier to move and load, says Hartmann. Producers have reported that hogs have been known to walk right onto the truck, thinking they were going through another gate to more feed.

Moving sows requires attention to detail. Move sows one at a time. Use sorting panels to guide the sows, and have a second person close the gates. “Many times moving sows is the last task on weaning day,” says Hartmann, “and people get careless. That’s when injuries occur.”

While those are the top reasons for workers’ compensation claims, there are several other dangerous situations in pork production. Accidental needle sticks are another common safety problem.

Hartmann says if two people are doing vaccinations in the nursery, he recommends that they stand back to back to avoid accidentally injecting each other. If two employees panel pigs into a corner and try to vaccinate them, the chances of accidentally sticking each other increase greatly. To avoid sticking yourself, Schwab says, make sure the animal is properly restrained. Watch your body alignment to keep from injecting yourself in case you slip.

Employees need to be trained in safety protocols around manure storage areas. Any enclosed space with toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide and methane can be dangerous. People should enter those areas only with the proper protective equipment such as a harness, lifeline and appropriate respirator, and someone should stand watch.

“You should have an oxygen monitor in the pits, and if there is a question about oxygen levels you need to have an air-supply respirator with an extra emergency bottle before you enter,” says Aherin.

Auger operation is another common danger. Lock-out tag breakers on augers allow you to shut off a breaker so that no one else can turn it back on. This lets you work on an auger, without fear that someone might accidentally turn the breaker back on.

While it’s important to be prepared for the worst, as far as workers’ compensation claims go, the best approach is to avoid injuries in the first place. With proper training and employees’ attention to detail, you may be lucky enough to never have such a claim, and that would be good news for you and your employees.