A Hurry-up Harvest has Farm Safety Watchers on Edge

It’s hard finding farm safety national stats that go past 2008 – and it’s high time we had some, to figure out trends – but you don’t need hard numbers to know farm safety is vital, especially this time of year.  Farm safety problems peak in the fall, during harvest, when farmers spend long hours bringing in the crop, in a relatively short window of time.

Highway 401 signs, particularly around places such as pancake-flat, agriculturally intensive Kent County say “Fatigue kills”, and you have to wonder if there’s meant to be a message for farmers, too. Powerful and potentially dangerous equipment, along with unusually long days, can be a dangerous combination.

But this year the situation is even worse. It’s further heightened by the late harvest, which is expected to be delayed by up to two weeks in some crops. Planting was late, and then the growing season weather was cool. Weather has improved this week, but overall, there’s a lot of catching up to do in a short time.

All this means that when harvest time finally arrives, the window to take in crops will be smaller than normal. And what will follow is longer hours spent in the field.

Dean Anderson, Guelph-based agricultural program manager for Ontario Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, puts it this way: “We’re potentially looking at later nights, stacks of equipment everywhere, many bushels going through combines and all kinds of machinery on the road,” he says. “Farm safety problems get worse when farmers are in a hurry to harvest.”

Anderson’s had a busy pre-harvest season speaking to various groups about farm safety, from high school students to volunteer firefighters.

His fundamental message is have a farm safety plan, refer to it and stick to it. This includes knowing basic first aid, and making sure first aid items are available to everyone on the farm.

People, equipment, materials and the environment are the four common elements of farm safety, for both losses and control, says Anderson.

It’s the equipment that’s getting his attention lately. At Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show near Woodstock, Anderson noticed how machinery manufacturers are starting to affix maximum speed signs on equipment that travels on public roads.

Some of the signs he’s seen indicate the vehicle can go 55 kilometres an hour. Some even go as fast as 100 kilometres per hour. That makes sense to farmers – as farm sizes grow and the distances between fields increase, speed can mean efficiency.

The idea of the maximum-speed signs is to let other drivers know what they’re behind may indeed be a farm vehicle, but it’s not slow moving. It’s not their grandfather’s tractor or combine. And if they plan to pass it, they better give themselves lots of time and room.

But Anderson, who’s been around farm equipment a long time, noticed something further troubling…much of the equipment he saw with these higher-speed signs were also affixed with  the traditional orange and red slow-moving vehicle triangle.

By law, vehicles travelling 40 kilometres per hour or less are supposed to display them.

But how can you be “slow moving” yet approach 100 kilometres per hour on the road? And what are passenger vehicle drivers supposed to believe?

Anderson and other farm safety experts will be discussing these problems and others at a workshop in Bingeman’s in Kitchener on October 27. Among the agenda items are tractor safety, electrical safety around the farm, working at heights and vulnerable seasonal and foreign workers.

The timing is important. Why not get up to speed on farm safety, or at least get a refresher? Farm safety is under the microscope in the fall in particular, but it’s a vitally important issue all year long.


Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy


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