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The business case for farm health and safety

John Shutske for Progressive Dairy Published on 06 August 2021

Locating, recruiting, onboarding and retaining good workers on dairy operations has become a huge concern nationwide, whether you’re milking 100, 1,000 or 5,000 cows.

Many factors can influence a producer’s success in their efforts to maintain a strong and productive workforce. This includes word-of-mouth and reputation, location, pay, benefits, working conditions and opportunities to advance within an operation. However, producers should never underestimate the value of purposeful and meaningful attention to the safety, health and well-being of their workforce.

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In our research work with larger dairy farms and their workers in Wisconsin, we’ve learned in our focus groups and interviews with workers that they are often keenly aware of the health and safety hazards associated with their work environment. There is a strong sense that when a manager, owner or other leader on the farm shows care and concern about the health and well-being of all workers, it sends a clear signal that the farm cares. Often, this is reciprocated through loyalty, better rates of retention and positive communication between current workers and those who might join your workforce in the future. Word travels fast.

Beyond helping you recruit and maintain a quality workforce, there are other highly positive economic motivations to pay attention to agricultural safety and health. This can include both cost savings and increases to revenue. Here are some examples:

Cost savings

It can be difficult to fully measure “saved costs,” but here are a few major costs that can be reduced significantly or even eliminated.

  • Pain and suffering: Chronic pain from past injuries or wear-and-tear on joints is very common. Pain often results in need for ongoing over-the-counter or prescription pain medication – a known risk factor for further injury.

  • Downtime, lost production: With injuries on large-animal operations, multiple days of lost time are common. Finding replacement workers can be nearly impossible in some situations. One or more days of lost field time in time-sensitive cropping operations (planting, hay operations, harvest) can result in several thousand dollars of direct losses and can be especially costly in sub-ideal weather conditions or with undersized equipment field capacity.

  • Increased “replacement” labor cost: If someone is injured, it can be nearly impossible in some areas to find replacement help. If you are able, skilled labor cost is over $17 or more per hour and general labor $11 to $13.50 per hour – but may take days or more to find fill-in help.

  • Stress levels: High stress levels persist following an injury or work-related illness. Chronic stress impairs decision-making and can also contribute to or exacerbate depression and/or anxiety and can increase risk for farmworker or farm operator suicide.

  • Direct medical costs: Direct U.S. medical expenses in 2021 for farm-related injuries based on past studies is estimated at $3.2 billion. In our past studies, up to 80% of Wisconsin farming injuries (as many as 10,000 per year) require medical care. Single-day inpatient hospital care with simple injuries can range from $5,000 to $10,000. Costs can escalate, often costing five to 10 times more with post-injury surgery costs. Direct costs (care, rehab, physical therapy) for significant injuries like amputations, major fractures or spinal injuries can range from $100,000 on up to $1 million or more.

  • Increased worker’s compensation costs: Worker’s compensation costs are based on the risk associated with a specific type of work. In dairy operations, 4% to 5% of payroll would be an estimate for typical costs but, in most states, this number is adjusted upward considerably based on poor loss history (or can also be adjusted downward).

  • Long-term lost opportunity, income potential or realized future: Disabilities are extremely common in agriculture, affecting 1 in 5 adult farm operators and 1 in 10 farm hired workers.

The revenue side of the equation

  • Worker retention and positive impacts on engagement and productivity: In operations with hired employees, focus groups suggest a strong awareness of management’s attitudes toward safety and health. Retaining workers is critical; to bring a new full-time worker on board, the estimated cost is 33% of a worker’s annual wage/salary. Also, with engagement and communication between farm owners and workers being critical, studies suggest that workers who feel a sense of being engaged are up to 21% more productive.

  • Better trust, culture, openness which leads to improvements in above factors: This is shown in numerous surveys, focus groups and other findings connected to workplace climate and culture. Openness, transparency, trust and engagement means workers will work with farm managers, owners and operators to solve problems for the good of all. Clear communication of the nature of the employer/employee team can be articulated through clearly articulated policies and ongoing conversations, training, etc.

The bottom line: Safety and health efforts have an ROI

Safety takes an investment in time and often in money. But these investments can pay dividends and provide a financial return on investment. This ROI can only be realized by carefully and systematically examining physical risks and hazards, prioritizing next steps and actions, and then following through to make needed changes. end mark

To learn more about the research behind this article, visit the UW-Division of Extension’s Farm Management topic hub.

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John Shutske
  • John Shutske

  • Professor and Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison, Biological Systems Engineering
  • Email John Shutske

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