Ag's HR Coach

Build a Safety-First Farm Culture

Lori Culler
By  Lori Culler , DTN Farm Business Adviser
Review "near misses" so you can prevent serious accidents and injuries later. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Unfortunately, most of us know someone who has been injured in a farming accident. One of my own family members was involved in a serious accident a few years ago. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety (NIOSH), in 2012, 374 farmers and farm workers died from work-related injuries. Every day, about 167 agricultural workers suffer a lost-work-time injury.

To assist in the prevention of farm accidents and to reduce the opportunity for incidents to occur, we need to do more than write a few safety policies. It has to be a full cultural change where safety is front of mind and it's a continuous process of improving work practices and equipment to support a safer environment.

A transformation to a more safety-focused culture starts from the owners, but is ultimately driven by the team as a whole. Leadership must be committed and supportive of initiatives to improve safety at work. It starts with creating an internal safety committee. For a small farm, the safety committee can be comprised of all farm employees. For a larger operation, you would create a diversified group of operators and managers.

The purpose of the safety committee is to not only craft safety policies, but to continually reinforce company protocols and provide safety education/training to other employees. The committee discusses and reviews accidents on the farm to see what could have been prevented. They also explore "near misses." The term "near misses" is defined as an unplanned event that did not result in injury, illness or damage, but had the potential to do so. It's basically a close-call that happened on the farm. If the committee stays focused on examining these so-called "almost accidents," they can work to prevent that close-call from turning into a serious accident later. Collecting near-miss reports from employees helps create a culture that seeks to identify and control hazards.

The safety committee should hold regular meetings, have clearly set agendas and a budget for safety improvements. Committees should create a type of reward system that aligns with the goals for the farm. You could reward employees for providing safety ideas that get implemented or buy lunch for every month there are no accidents.

A large grain farm in North Dakota we work with at AgHires holds 12 safety meetings per year with their team. They are not monthly meetings, rather they are held in the winter months and a few summer months with some months holding two meetings. The farm owner said they discuss specific safety topics and they also discuss accidents that occur on other farms in the area.

The farm should create and train employees how to handle accidents. From simple injuries to serious accidents, employees need to know what steps need to be taken. It's important to have all employees complete and regularly update an emergency contact list. If a serious injury occurs, someone can immediately notify family members.

To assist in your safety program and to ensure OSHA compliance, I recommend hiring an independent Occupational Health Safety consultant with specific knowledge and experience for the state of your operation. Currently, there are 22 states that have OSHA-approved state plans for the private sector above and beyond what the federal regulations require. The consultant will walk through your farm and provide you a list of recommended changes and inform you of your specific compliance requirements.

OSHA compliance and enforceability is dependent on several factors; two factors we will explore are size of farm and the activity on the farm. Below outlines some basic OSHA information from the U.S. Department of Labor defining small farms and their exemptions (…):

"Farms that are considered 'small' by OSHA have exemptions to its enforceability. Those 'small farms' are defined by a farm operation with 10 or fewer non-family employees that have not maintained a temporary labor camp within the preceding 12 months.

"OSHA defines a 'farming operation' as 'any operation involved in the growing or harvesting of crops or the raising of livestock or poultry, or related activities conducted by a farmer on sites such as farms, ranches, orchards, dairy farms or similar farming operations.' Crop farming operation activities include preparing the ground, sowing seeds, watering, weeding, spraying, harvesting, and all related activities necessary for these operations, such as storing, fumigating, and drying crops grown on the farm.

"However, if an employer performs activities on a small farm that are not related to farming operations and are not necessary to gain economic value from products produced on the farm, those activities are not exempt from OSHA enforcement. For example, if an exempt small farm maintains a grain handling operation storing and selling grain grown on other farms, the grain handling operation would not be exempt from OSHA enforcement."

I recommend that you ask an expert from your area to meet with you so you can better understand your obligations.

Not all farm accidents are preventable, but if the farm takes initiative in developing a safety-first culture focused on continuous improvement you are significantly reducing the chances of an accident.


Editor's note: Lori Culler grew up on a vegetable and grain farm and is the founder of AgHires (…), a national employment recruiting service and online ag job board based in Temperance, Michigan. Email and find other labor management tips under Resources at


Lori Culler