By Eric Lowe and Abe Perez

When a Nebraska dairy worker’s tractor tipped over into a manure lagoon last summer, it caused the year’s second such fatality and only intensified scrutiny of the dairy industry’s safety practices.

Agricultural workers as a group suffer 240 serious lost-work-time injuries daily. The fatalities alone rank higher than police officers’, and are twice the rate suffered by construction workers. It’s no wonder that OSHA is cracking down on non-compliance with safety rules and standards of farm risk management.

To that end, OSHA’s Local Emphasis Programs (LEPs) are being applied to dairies in New York state and Wisconsin. LEPs are programmed inspections in the targeted states for a range of safety risks. If health hazards are identified in the process, the scope of the inspection is expanded accordingly. While the LEP program isn’t implemented nationally, dairy farms in surrounding states can learn from this program, considering that OSHA also may pay closer attention to their operations, too.

Dairy farms face is two challenges.  The first is to recognize the safety hazards they need to address. They then need to embrace the preventive best practices that will counter the various health and safety risks of day-to-day operations on the farm.

Many of the most common risks dairies face are avoidable. These include:

  • Animal handling. Managing cows that can weigh over a ton and are eager to get the milking done can be a hazard in and of itself to the untrained or under-trained worker. Equipment can heighten the risks. For example, the crowd gate that pushes cows to the milk machines can pose problems. The pusher who jumps the gate may get crushed between it and the cows – an easily avoidable accident with the right kind of on-the-job training. 
  • Animal waste disposal. The manure lagoons where waste is stored and treated pose several risk, including equipment tipping over and throwing workers in the sludge. They also emit a toxic methane gas that’s hazardous to breathe – and can kill. Easily implemented solutions include securing the lagoons, and training workers assigned to the area on specific health and safety protocols like working in pairs or safely operating equipment to avoid tipping in the sludge.  
  • Slips, trips and falls (STF). The floors of the milking parlor are almost always wet, posing a slip hazard. Consistent cleanup and the right kind of footgear helps workers avoid these accidents. However, STF injuries can happen anywhere at the dairy, from ladders to tractor steps to milk vats and tank cleaning.  All of these potential injuries can be prevented by implementing and enforcing safety protocols that minimize the risk of injury.

The heightened scrutiny and growing fines for non-compliance with safety standards is forcing the dairy industry to pay attention to their farm risk management. Many state dairy associations are taking a proactive stance. The Idaho Dairymen’s Association, for example, budgeted $200,000 for an on-site safety training program for its 490 member dairies, with trainers actually doing what OSHA inspectors do – pointing out violations that need to be fixed. 

Training is absolutely critical and the most important best practice you can put in place. Your workers’ best protection – and yours as their employer – is to do everything possible to counter unsafe conditions and prevent accidents from happening.  However, since training is not a one-and-done deal, it’s important to bolster it by using signage to remind and reinforce safety protocols in a way that overcomes language and literacy barriers.  

Dairy farms are getting larger and more sophisticated in many of their operations. Regulators and industry leaders are pushing to ensure a similar shift to a modern culture of worker health and safety.

HUB International’s consultants are available to work with you in trends and developments that may impact your risk posture today and in the future.