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Create a culture of dairy farm safety

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairy Published on 11 September 2019

Two employee fatalities at Riverview LLP led to the realization that the dairy company’s existing safety training program wasn’t enough to keep workers safe.

The dairy’s management team realized safety wasn’t something simply to check off a list and review again next year. Instead, safety had to be incorporated into the core values of the dairy.

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According to data from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), fatalities may be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to farm safety risks. Studies show that for every one death, there are 30 lost workday cases, 300 OSHA-reportable incidents (defined as an accident resulting in a death or injury, days away from work, restricted work or transfer to another job, medical treatment beyond first aid or loss of consciousness), 3,000 near-misses and 300,000 at-risk behaviors.

While safety incidents at Riverview closely reflected those national statistics, Dr. Conrad Spangler, director of animal health for Riverview LLP, said it was apparent that the safety training and procedures already in place simply were not enough to ensure a safe environment.

With 22 production facilities in four states, tackling the safety challenges at Riverview was no small undertaking. Spangler shared Riverview’s efforts to create a culture of farm safety during the Cornell University Operations Managers Conference, held in January 2019, in Syracuse, New York.

The trauma of the employee deaths made it clear it was time to not only overhaul the farm’s safety training program but to closely inspect the procedures in place, the work environment and the attitude of all employees. Safety had to be at the forefront in all decisions, and all standard operating procedures had to be first focused on worker safety. Riverview, based in Morris, Minnesota, began an intensive review of their operations, with the goal of truly creating a culture of on-farm safety and no longer being just another statistic.

OSHA’s ‘Dairy Dozen’

In order to fine-tune the safety program, Riverview reviewed OSHA’s “Dairy Dozen” list of 12 dairy farm-specific hazards:

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  1. Manure storage facilities and collection structures

  2. Dairy bull and cow handling/worker positioning

  3. Electrical systems

  4. Skid-steer loader operation

  5. Tractor operation

  6. Guarding of power take-offs

  7. Guarding of other power transmission and functional components

  8. Hazardous energy control while performing servicing and maintenance on equipment

  9. Hazard communication

  10. Confined spaces (e.g., grain storage bins, vertical silos, hoppers, milk vessels or tanks, manure collection systems)

  11. Horizontal bunker silos

  12. Noise

By intensely auditing one area of concern per month, Riverview managers and employees gained a better perspective on the actual safety issues faced on the dairy when performing standard job functions and how to better mitigate them.

“You start to see things you never saw before,” Spangler said of the safety audit process.

Among initial steps to improve safety at the dairy was to implement employee cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first-aid training. First responders from the community trained employees to respond to any incidents that might occur. This not only helped to emphasize the seriousness of the renewed focus on safety but also empowered employees to accept responsibility for workplace safety and take farm safety seriously.

‘Be Safe’ program implemented

Beyond first aid, the “Be Safe” program implemented at Riverview includes dairy-wide and job-specific safety training. The program encompasses four aspects of dairy operations, all of which play a role in safety: equipment, processes, people and the environment.

Each piece of equipment has its operations manual, and employees are required to understand and demonstrate the proper way to operate equipment before being allowed to use it. Taking shortcuts and not following standard operating procedures, “rigged” equipment repairs or using equipment in any way it was not intended to be utilized is no longer tolerated. The death of a night supervisor, due to broken equipment remaining in use, led to greater awareness of this issue.

Processes at the farm were reviewed, including input from the workers, to ascertain that standard operating procedures allow each job to be done effectively and safely. The overall physical environment was inspected too, in order to identify and mitigate hazards that could cause an unsafe work space.

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To keep safety at the forefront of everyone’s minds, Riverview’s “Be Safe” program emphasizes preparedness, places responsibility on employees for keeping their areas safe and creates a culture where not doing the safe thing is unacceptable.

“To get good at anything, you need to practice,” Spangler said. “You have to train your mind before it becomes instinctive.”

Make safety a daily focus

Regular reminders that focus on safety are another part of the program. Daily stretches that incorporate safety reminders occur prior to each shift. Safety celebrations – held regularly to acknowledge progress in decreasing the number of safety incidents seen at the dairy – provide employees with a morale boost and reward their efforts. Safety committees meet regularly and review any incidents. Any challenges – including employee reluctance – are met directly.

In the Hispanic culture, “safety is not a thing,” Spangler explained. A “we’re tough” farmworker attitude and resistance to change by longtime workers are also a part of the problem.

In response, Riverview has created “safety mindsets,” Spangler said, which have been successful in overriding some of these inherent cultural obstacles often found in dairy operations. The mindsets teach employees all injuries are preventable; safety is something that can and will be managed, and nothing is worth losing your livelihood or life. Anyone who does not follow safety procedures and isn’t concerned about safety will be fired.

The “Be Safe” program has paid off in a decrease in incidents on the dairy, even as the number of employees has grown. Riverview now has more than 1,000 employees across five states in beef and dairy operations.

When they began in 2011, their OSHA incident rate was 13.82% (a mathematical calculation that describes the number of employees per 100 full-time employees who have been involved in a recordable injury or illness). After implementing a focus on safety, it fell to 3.5% in 2017.

Building a culture of safety

The next step is to fully integrate safety into the values of each employee, creating a culture of safety, Spangler said. The goal, which will indicate success, is to get the dairy below a 0.5 OSHA-reportable incident rate and stay there.

No matter the size of your dairy, safety deserves attention. Real change will require a designated employee who can focus on safety for at least 20% of their work hours.

“Someone needs to devote time. Lots of questions will come up,” Spangler said.

Among his recommendations, all dairy farms should comply with OSHA regulations for safety, training and reporting as the first step. Use the OSHA “Dairy Dozen” to audit your operation. Assess your safety data and statistics so you can see problems and measure success. Start a safety review committee. Document safety policy and procedures. Train employees and enforce expectations. Read equipment operating manuals and follow them precisely. Reach out to safety resources available in your state.

“At the end of the day, it is people we are working with. Make people accountable and responsible for safety,” Spangler said. “The secret ingredient is people. You have to change the hearts and the minds of the people.”  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

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