In most occupations, being kicked, squeezed or squashed is not part of the job description. However, these can be daily hazards for dairy workers when safety precautions are not taken and employees are not properly trained to handle animals and equipment.
The National Farm Medicine Center (NFMC) and Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) recently teamed up to present safety training sessions to Spanish-speaking dairy farm employees. A total of nearly 100 workers attended the two trainings, which were held at Central Sands Dairy in Nekoosa and Rosendale Dairy near Pickett last week. NFMC Director Dr. Matthew Keifer and Community Outreach Specialist Francisco Guerrero Silva covered topics including animal handling, electrical safety, personal protective equipment, chemicals and heat stress/cold. In addition to the safety training, veterinarian Oscar Duarte also addressed obstetrics in Spanish.
“The idea of PDPW doing the obstetrics training and linking it to the safety of the worker is an opportunity for us to tell the worker that you have been trained on how to take care of the cow, now you will learn how to take care of yourself,” says Guerrero. “Workers were very appreciative of PDPW doing the training, but also very appreciative of the owner of the farm sending them to training.”
NFMC estimates that as much as 60 percent of the dairy industry’s workforce is Hispanic. As Keifer points out, these people have backgrounds in all walks of life, but few may have ever touched a cow or a large piece of machinery in their homeland. Some of these workers may have been taxi drivers or lawyers, he states, and they have a very limited amount of time to learn not only how to do a job but also to do it safely.
“Agricultural workers are 10 times more likely to die at work than non-agricultural workers,” Keifer adds. As an occupational medicine physician, he has observed farm worker injuries and deaths related to hazards like animal handling, falling, confined spaces, skid steers, equipment and electricity. These incidents can occur on farms of various scales and sizes, but only those meeting certain criteria must comply with standards set forth by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Farms with more than 10 non-family employees or those with on-site housing for temporary workers in the last 12 months are obliged to maintain records of injury and comply with OSHA regulations. “The hazards are equally as common, if not more, on smaller than larger farms,” he says.
“We’ve never had an injury on the dairy, but that would be one of the worst things that could ever happen to us,” says dairy producer Deb Reinhart, who sent two employees from her 300-cow dairy to the training. “Nothing is more important to us than the safety and security of the employees and animals on our dairy.”
The session presented by Keifer and Guerrero covered basic points of animal handling with workers, such as understanding the flight zone and points of balance and how to recognize signs of stress. “We don’t know from birth what a cow looks like when she is distressed,” Keifer says, reiterating the importance of teaching workers basic animal behavior.
“A lot of times, the workers realize that things are happening, but they don’t understand why the animal is stressed,” Guerrero adds, “Because they didn’t work on a farm before and no one has told them the key points of what to look for.” Common injuries that Keifer sees are workers getting kicked, stepped on or caught between an animal and a structure, such as a fence.
Injuries related to skid steers are also commonly observed on farms, particularly broken legs, according to Guerrero. Because there is often pressure on employees to do their work quickly and efficiently, they may not take the time to enter and exit the skid steer safely to prevent slips and falls. Employees should be educated on using three-point contact to get in and out of these machines. “You should get out of a skid steer like it is a ladder,” Keifer instructs. “You get out the way you got in, using the handles.”
For producers like Reinhart, these sessions reinforce training that is already a part of the employee curriculum. “We actually do two modules, one is safety and skid steer training, one of the main places where employees can be injured. Then, the safe animal handling module talks about how to move animals and how to approach them carefully,” she says. She uses a total 10 training modules developed by Language Links, and employees view them using a laptop.
Initial and continual education for dairy employees is something that both Keifer and Guerrero recommend. “One key point is orientation,” says Guerrero. Unlike other jobs where training and on-boarding may take days or even weeks, dairy workers are often times expected to learn quickly with little instruction. A language barrier can further complicate this task.
“The other key point is reinforcement,” adds Guerrero, “You must keep doing training to keep workers safe.” Some farms may hold safety meetings monthly or every few months. Another good time for training, he points out, is prior to seasonal changes, for example harvest time in the fall or extreme cold in the winter. “Frequent reinforcement is almost always better than less frequent reinforcement,” emphasizes Keifer.
While staying safe is one point of conversation with dairy workers, the NFMC duo also strives to inform workers on their rights if an accident does occur. “There is a misunderstanding out there of what worker’s compensation is for,” Keifer says, “We had some people who were thinking it was health insurance, not related to injuries on the farm.” Farm owners may also be unaware of the rules that apply when it comes to worker’s compensation.
“As soon as you reach six employees on payroll, then you have 10 days to establish a worker’s compensation insurance relationship,” he adds.
For more information on rural health and farm safety, visit www.marshfieldclinic.org/nfmc/.