Farm Safety: In Their Hands, On Their Minds

Universities are sometimes said to emphasize theory over practice. But when it comes to farm safety, agricultural diploma program students at the University of Manitoba get both.

When these students reconvene for class at the University of Manitoba this week, farm safety will be on their minds and in their curriculum. Thanks to advances being made there through an initiative called the Farm Safety Project, aggie students are getting a chance to talk over farm safety issues, learn about best practices, and take it all back to the farm through a course called Intro to Farm Safety.

The project was launched in 2013 with a grant from the Research and Innovation Program of Worker’s Compensation Board of Manitoba. The idea was to raise the bar on farm safety understanding, bridge the gap between legislation and on-farm adoption and drive home the idea that farm safety is not a penalty or a task, it’s a mindset, part of farm management itself.

Farm_Safety_Team

Farm Safety Project Team (L to R): Alysa McIntosh, Thea Green and Colin Penner. Photo via the University of Manitoba

One of my favourite aspects of the project is that it’s staffed by three recent diploma program graduates, Thea Green, Alysa McIntosh and Colin Penner. They co-teach the curriculum, are passionate about the project and, as they say, certainly have some of their own skin the game.

For example, Alysa, whom I met at a leadership meeting sponsored by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association in December, is part of the fifth generation of her family potato farm, Mid-Man Farms, located near Carberry. She works with the U of M farm safety program three days a week, and farms with her family the rest of the time.

When she was 16 years old, she sustained a sports injury, and couldn’t perform much physical farm work like she normally did. So, with her parents’ encouragement, she assumed the role of farm safety officer for the family farm.

At about the same time, the province had targeted potato farms, with their large number of seasonal workers, as a testing ground for new farm safety programs. Alysa worked with Morag Majerison from SAFE Work MB on a farm safety program for Mid-Man that’s still in use today. It included a look at physical hazards on the farm and job hazard analysis, safe work procedures, emergency procedures and more.

Alysa says the hardest part about teaching farm safety is knowing where to start. So in the classroom, she and the other instructors start by talking. “We need significant classroom time to build a basic understanding of how workplace safety and health applies to Manitoba farms, and why we make the choices we do in completing farm work,” she says.

And coming from a farm, the instructors know farm safety is a touchy, complicated subject that can’t be strictly taught, or learned, from a manual.

“Effective farm safety interventions depend on changing behaviours and beliefs, not just providing information and improving awareness,” says Alysa. “Only through changing on-farm decision-making and behaviours can we expect to see a decrease in injury and fatality statistics in this sector, and we know successful knowledge transfer is crucial to this.”

Manitoba farm safety training

Farm safety training at the University of Manitoba.

About 140 students have now completed the course. The project leaders have also provided tractor training to select U of M staffers and producers, through funding provided by the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association and Farm Credit Canada. As well, they’ve waded into the farm community and offered three producer workshops in Winnipeg, Brandon and Dauphin, reaching 75 farmers. There, they talked about how Workplace Safety and Health legislation applies to farms, as well as how to identify and mitigate hazards in the farm workplace.

Alysa says she and the other project organizers feel like they’re making progress.

“It’s so cool to see farmers who, five years ago, were asking workplace health and safety officers to leave the yard, and now they’re joining the conversation, lending ideas, showing their employees how important they are to them and their farming operation.”

Up next for the team: Embedding farm safety into all aspects of the curriculum, just like it is on the farm, and not just making it a stand alone course. Good move. Great program.

 

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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