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Rest and relaxation critical to injury-free harvest

Fatigue, lack of familiarity with equipment and cutting corners to save a few minutes can result in a lifetime of regret

Every harvest season on the Prairies is memorable for one reason or another. Last year’s harvest will likely be remembered for the unwelcome rain and snow, the mud, the ruts and the millions of unharvested acres.

Fingers crossed, the 2017 harvest might be remembered as a line-to-line event — a harvest season that went from start to finish with few if any weather-related delays.

Glen Blahey, agricultural health and safety officer with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA), wants western Canadian farmers to make sure that this harvest season is remembered for the right reasons.

“I’ve been in the farm safety business for … 37 years now and certainly there are two peaks (when we talk about farm injuries): one is plant and the other is harvest,” Blahey said.

“At harvest season, statistics show that the severity of injuries goes up. That means the injuries are more serious and more debilitating.”

So far, the 2017 harvest season has been characterized by warm, dry weather and few, if any, weather-related interruptions.

With last year’s rain-soaked harvest still fresh in their minds, many farmers are pushing themselves and their resources to the limit.

But pushing too hard can come with risks. In a recent interview, Blahey cited a safety study in the United Kingdom that compared the effects of fatigue with the effects of alcohol impairment.

The study found that the level of cognitive impairment caused by fatigue in equipment operators that had been working non-stop for 16 hours or more was equivalent to the level of impairment caused by a blood-alcohol level of .08.

“Fatigue is a very significant factor,” Blahey said. “Not having adequate rest breaks can wreak havoc, not only in terms of personal injury but also in terms of loss of efficiency in the work process.”

In its latest published report, the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting program (CAIR) ranked agriculture as the fourth most hazardous occupation in Canada based on rates of fatal injuries.

According to CAIR, there were 843 agriculture-related fatalities in Canada during a 10-year period between 2003 to 2012. Nearly 400 of those occurred in July, August, September and October.

Fatigue during busy seasons is just one factor that contributes to farm injuries and fatalities.

Others include lack of familiarity with machines or processes and inadequate planning and preparedness.

“Early in the (harvest) season, a lot of injuries happen because it’s been almost a year since that kind of work has been done, so the familiarity with the operation of the equipment and the practices has faded a little bit,” he said.

Another critical factor is planning and preparedness.

Western Canadian farmers excel at producing crops efficiently and are among the most cost-effective growers in the world.

But when it comes to injury prevention, emergency preparedness and safety planning, there is plenty of room for improvement.

“I would probably suggest that the vast majority of producers would not get a gold star for health and safety planning,” Blahey said.

A comprehensive approach should include:

  • identifying areas or situations where injuries might occur
  • developing strategies aimed at minimizing injury risks
  • communicating those strategies to farm workers
  • ensuring that proper training procedures and emergency response protocols are in place
  • making sure that every employee has reasonable access to communications equipment such as cellphones or radios
  • maintaining emergency or safety equipment in all areas where employees are working.

This includes items such as fire extinguishers, protective clothing and well-stocked first aid kits.

Preparedness planning does not only apply to situations where serious injuries or fatalities have occurred, Blahey added.

They also apply to everyday situations that could pose a hazard.

“What do you do when something goes wrong? For example, what procedure should you follow if the combine plugs up?

“Injury prevention is not just about making sure guards are in place. It also involves planning: making sure that people are properly trained, making sure they are competent and making sure they are not so fatigued or exhausted that they not longer can maintain focus on the task at hand.”

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