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Work site safe

Agriculture.com Staff 07/06/2010 @ 5:06pm

When John Fiscalini took over his family's four-generation farm in 1993, he didn't inherit an employee handbook.

Today, three of his five mission statement goals focus on employees. The third goal, "To provide safe and healthy working and living conditions for employees and their families," is a strategic cornerstone.

It affirms Fiscalini's belief in maximizing his resources. His 530-acre farm near Modesto, California, is fertilized entirely by manure from his 1,500-head cow herd. In 2009, he completed a methane digester to recycle manure, whey, and feed waste into electricity. The 23 employees at Fiscalini Farms are sustainable human resources.

"Injured and sick employees aren't productive," he says. "Sometimes it isn't a monetary issue -- it's taking time to identify potential hazards."

Agriculture's human capital base is endangered. Farming ranks as one of the most hazardous U.S. occupations, with injuries accounting for an estimated $4.57 billion per year. That averages out to $2,400 per farm, or 2.8% of farm value sales.

"Hazards and injury prevention need to be managed, just like machinery maintenance and crop inputs," says Dennis Murphy, Pennsylvania State University ag safety and health specialist. "Unfortunately it doesn't get the attention it needs until there's a loss, and a farmer is looking at a lawsuit."

Dust, gases, noise, and pesticides also pose risks. "There's a greater awareness among employees of health hazards," Murphy says. "They have greater expectations of having personal protective equipment."

Safety and health claims trigger higher worker's compensation rates. "We've had a few on-farm injuries -- most are cow-related or muscle strains," Fiscalini says. "We keep first aid kits handy. Our worker's comp company helps keep rates in line."

OSHA requires Fiscalini and other farmers with 11 or more employees to have a written hazard communication policy, worker training, and training records.

"Larger employers must comply," says Jim Carrabba, New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health, Cooperstown. "It's a gray area for smaller employers. They have to manage their own risks."

When John Fiscalini took over his family's four-generation farm in 1993, he didn't inherit an employee handbook.

Traditionally, most farmers have pursued their livelihood at the risk of their own safety and health. The seasonal nature of farming and time constraints have merged with stoicism and thin profit margins to create a risk-tolerant culture.

What makes a successful safety and health program, and where does it fit into overall risk management?

Dave Hommel is an auditor for Certified Safe Farm (CSF), a voluntary program developed by the University of Iowa's Center for Agricultural Safety and Health in 1998. He farms near Eldora, Iowa.

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