Lessons learned from a career in safety
April 18, 2022 by Cheryl Skjolaas
A Wisconsin dairy producer once asked me at a safety training, “Of all the jobs in agriculture, why would you choose a job that deals with injuries and deaths?” As I prepare to retire from a 32-year career in agricultural safety and health, this wasn’t about injuries and death. It was about people.
As a child, manure was a part of daily life on a 70-cow dairy. In the early 70s my parents expanded the operation with a double four herringbone milking parlor, free stall barn with automatic alley scraper and a manure lagoon (a clay lined open air storage 140 by 60 feet with maximum dept of 14 feet) enclosed with a five-wire fence. We didn’t talk about manure gases, agitation and pump safety, sand-laden manure issues or road travel issues with a farm tractor and 500-gallon tanker. It wasn’t that hazards weren’t present, nor that safety wasn’t important to my family. But this type of manure handling and storage system and technology was new.
In May 1990, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued an alert: “Request for Assistance in Preventing Deaths of Farm Workers in Manure Pits.” That year was a significant point of time in my life too. In January, my brother, who had taken over the farm, was killed in a car crash and in December, I took an outreach specialist position in agricultural safety and health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A personal loss led to a professional commitment: preventing the loss of loved ones.
There’s a saying that your personal rearview mirror should be smaller than the windshield in front of you. With a glance to the past, here are safety considerations for the year ahead.
You’re spilling what?
My initial programming with the UW Division of Extension Nutrient Management team was related to manure spill response demonstrations. Having worked with emergency preparedness and response there was a natural connection. People come first – everyone needs to go home at the end of the day. An injury doesn’t just happen – like that manure spill – there is a cause.
Make safety assessments your priority
When agitation boats were entering the scene, a field day to demonstrate equipment was held on a farm in northwest Wisconsin. It was a successful program with great attendance. Behind the scenes part of this programming was a meeting on risk management with university lawyers and extension risk management personnel. There needs to be those discussions on risks, but those can be tough. Agitation produces manure gases – how would we know if attendees were exposed to these dangerous gases? What actions would be taken if a gas monitor would sound its alarm? There’s a chance of drowning in manure slurry – what happens if someone falls in the manure slurry? Every time a company launched their boat for the demonstration, I prayed that nothing would go wrong. It really was the time spent assessing hazards, developing procedures, and communicating procedures to demonstrators and attendees that made the day a success.
Technology will continue to bring new systems and equipment to the farm and field. Sand separators, digesters, composters, deep pit barns, agitation boats, drag lines and transfer pumps to name a few recent technologies. Numerous business considerations are evaluated before investments are made. Have you considered your return on investment for safety?
Putting on my dairy boots, armed with gas monitors, and clipboards to assess hazards took me into dark and stinky places. For farm owners/managers, it provided a learning experience. To the question of “do you have an emergency plan for your farm?” it was common to be handed the manure spill response plan.
If you haven’t conducted a safety assessment for your operation, make it a priority. For those who have completed safety assessments, take time to review the assessments for changes to processes, equipment or personnel involved.
Consider needing to repair a pump in a reception pit. That reception pit is a confined space with a plethora of hazards – work your way down a confined space permit for types of hazards – falls, mechanical, atmospheric permit. That person entering a confined space enters a danger zone. In some cases, individuals have not come out alive and rescuers have died too. From safety research, The Hierarchy of Controls (https://www.osha.gov/safety-management/hazard-prevention) places priority on engineering out or substitution of hazards. Every time a pump can be lifted out for repair, that’s one less confined space entry a person must make.
Lessons from 2016
While manure gases were a known hazard, incidents in 2016 surfaced new issues. Manure gases and gas monitoring equipment are on the top of my safety action list. A value can’t be placed on the lives lost or human health costs that could have been prevented with gas monitoring instruments and safety procedures both in confined spaces and outdoor open-air situations. Without gas monitoring instruments always being used, these dangerous gases will continue to take health and life away without a moment’s notice.
Keep on rolling
A 2021 review of manure spills in Wisconsin from 2015 to 2019 found that 38 percent of the spills related to transporting manure either by tanker or draglines. Operator error was a factor in many of these incidents. Fatigue is a significant factor in work-related injuries. Manure application often has time pressures due to field conditions, quantity of manure to apply and weather. Pressures build to get the work done and odds are something will go wrong – something that could significantly impact a business but forever change life of family and friends.
It has been an honor to serve the agricultural industry by addressing safety and health issues. I can’t imagine the new technologies to be developed. However, I know that there will be people involved and their safety and health needs to be top priority. •