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6 Safety Tips for the Farm

To keep yourself and others safe on the farm, make it a point this winter to look for and repair some common problems.

One of the primary safety issues for any property is proper wiring and electrical components. Chip Petrea, Extension ag safety specialist at the University of Illinois, says electrical systems in newer farm buildings have nice electrical panels and covered wiring, but that’s not the case in many barns and shops that have been around for decades.

“There are as many – if not more – of the older electrical systems in barns,” says Petrea. “Some of the wires have been taken out, so the openings are really nice places for wasps and mice to get in there and build nests that can cause shortages. If the system isn’t ground-fault protected, a fire can start.”

Petrea says all electrical outlets should be the three-prong grounded type. If they have only two slots, upgrading the outlets will provide the most protection. Also, be sure to add a ground-fault circuit interrupter.

The extension cords you plug into those outlets may be meant for temporary use, but quite often they end up being permanent.

“One of the problems with that, of course, is the extension cord might not actually be rated for long-term use,” says Petrea. “The other problem is that the cords typically don’t get mounted properly. They just get strung across the floor or around, so they’re always a trip hazard.”

Periodically check the grounding rods and wires around buildings and power poles. If they become damaged, the overall system won’t provide adequate grounding protection.

Look up before you move any piece of equipment on your property. Numerous electrocutions on farms have been caused by contact with low overhead wires. Moving metal ladders, grain augers, and irrigation pipe should be done with extreme care.

  • Keep reading for safety tips on insulation, old farm equipment, tree saws, snowblowers, space heaters, and chainsaws.

1. Insulation fire hazards

Your barn and shop insulation might be a disaster waiting to happen. When certain types of insulation are installed and left exposed, this creates a serious fire hazard.

Dennis Murphy, Extension safety specialist at Penn State University, says the most hazardous type of insulation is cellular plastic. It may be fine if it’s covered up. Left uncovered, a fire could become serious in a hurry.

“As it burns, it gives off gases,” says Murphy. “The gases then ignite, and you get a flashover. The entire building and all its contents catch on fire very quickly, and it also gives off a lot of toxic smoke.”

Murphy says building codes typically require that cellular plastic insulation be protected with fire-resistant barriers. Unfortunately, building codes aren’t always enforced in farm buildings or aren’t applicable in rural areas.

A fire barrier is designed to keep heat away from the insulation so it doesn’t ignite and flash over. It also gives you time to extinguish the fire or to evacuate animals and equipment. Murphy says the insulation can be covered with almost any kind of non-flammable material.

“Gypsum wall board is probably the most common, but you can also use cement board or fire-retardant exterior plywood,” says Murphy. “Even good solid lumber would provide certainly some protection. It would always prevent the flashover. You’ll never get the breakdown of those gases as it burns.”

Flame spread is the measure of determining the suitability of materials. The higher the rating number, the faster a fire will spread.

For example, drywall has a flame spread rating of 15, but untreated exterior plywood can reach 200.

2. Old farm machinery safety

The old tractor you inherited from your grandfather is still a tough workhorse and gets everything done, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its dangers. Poorly maintained tractors seriously injure or kill farmers every year. If you’re working with old machinery, make sure the safety features are in place and are operating properly.

Scott Heiberger, communications specialist with the National Farm Medicine Center, says older farm equipment is outdated and usually is missing some of the most important standard safety features.

“About half of the tractors in operation do not have rollover protection and don’t have seat belts,” says Heiberger. “They’ll run forever, and a lot of these tractors are still out there. Maybe you only use them a few times a year and for certain tasks. Old tractors require you to stay on top of maintenance and repair issues.”

Heiberger says a number of states (including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York) have a ROPS rebate program. Farmers in those states can call an 800 number, and the person on the other end will look for a retrofitted ROPS to fit their tractor and also find a dealer to install it. There’s a 70% rebate available to cover the cost.

Another common hazard of old machinery is the power take-off. If the safety guard is missing, it should be replaced.

“They’re pretty well put together, kind of a plastic sheath,” says Heiberger. “They work real well. You balance that cost and effort of getting one of those vs. the absolute catastrophe of getting caught in a PTO. If you do survive, your life will never be the same.”

There are a few other areas to take note of. Old tractors have poor steps, so replacing them will prevent slips and falls. You might even need a new seat to avoid muscle and joint pain. It’s critical to stay on top of repairs under the tractor hood, too. Hoses become brittle and engines wear over time.

3. Safe practices with tree saws

An arborist is the best person to call when you need tree limbs cut, but farmers often like to do the work themselves. Tree saws are tricky, so take the proper safety precautions. Many farmers suffer injuries and even fatalities from falling off of a ladder or trying to manage heavy limbs as they’re cutting them.

Scott Prophett is the president and lead instructor of North American Training Solutions, a national company that trains arborists. He says professionals have special equipment that attaches them to the tree to prevent falling. If you insist on cutting a limb yourself, use a saw that allows you to stay on the ground. “They have power saws, which are chain saws on the end of a long pole, and you can make cuts from the ground that way,” says Prophett.

“There are pole saws in many lengths, some over 20 feet, so you can stay planted firmly on the ground,” he continues. “The risk in making cuts from the ground with an extended pole saw is that the limb could fall down on top of you.”

Make sure you know the tool you’re using. If the saw has not been properly sharpened or maintained, it will force you to use too much pressure, causing you to lose control. The cuts you make could also cause the branch to come back and hit you or swing down and knock the ladder out from under you.

Prophett says anytime you’re in a tree, get the right safety equipment to hold you there. “There are arborist harnesses specifically designed to sit in, and there are arborist ropes and specific knots and hitches that can be tied so you can be secured in the tree. That allows you to get in a good position to make cuts, which reduces your chances of falling.”

4. Snowblower safety

Portable snowblowers give your back a break, but there are safety considerations to remember. Avoid a trip to the emergency room by following these tips.

Kris Kiser, president of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, says to remove debris or objects from the area before the snowfall. Things like rocks, sticks, balls, wire – even Christmas lights – can be picked up by the machine and clog the chute.

Wet, heavy snow can create a clog, as well. Kiser says, for your safety, never unclog the chute while the machine is running.

“Always turn off the machine, disengage, and remove the key. Never put your hand in the chute. Never try to dislodge an object even with the machine off. Do not use your hands; use a stick. A lot of the machines come with a stick or a post to remove objects lodged in the chute.”

Hands and clothing also need to stay away from moving parts. Before you do any cleaning or inspecting, stay behind the handles and wait for the impeller and swirling blades to stop moving. If you’re doing any maintenance (such as changing the oil or removing a blade for sharpening), pull the wire off of the spark plug. This will ensure that the engine doesn’t start.
Kiser says commonsense basics are important to remember when blowing snow.

“Don’t do this kind of work impaired. No alcohol,” he says. “Do it in good light so you can see what you’re doing. Make sure there are no children or pets around. Remember, this is a machine that’s doing work. It has an engine, it has moving parts. You’ve got to use some caution around it. Know the machine and read your owner’s manual – it’s quite good and very specific. The machines are basically the same, but there are some design differences, so it’s important to know your own machine.”

Proper maintenance before and after the season also plays a role in a smooth operation.

5. Space heater safety

A space heater can quickly heat up a room to make you more comfortable, but it can also be very dangerous. Keep your family safe by using a space heater wisely.

Lorraine Carli is the vice president of outreach and advocacy with the National Fire Protection Association. She says space heaters account for about one third of all home-heating fires, but more than 80% of home-heating fire deaths.

“The biggest cause of a space heater fire is people leaving it too close to something that can burn,” says Carli. “Whether that’s bedding, furniture, or curtains, keep space heaters at least 3 feet away from anything that can burn. That gives you enough space to give it a little bit of room.”

Run the electric cord on top of area rugs or carpeting and plug it directly into an outlet. Plug it into a power strip if there aren’t enough outlets, rather than an extension cord. If you’re using an old space heater, Carli says to get a new one because the newer models have important safety features.

“Some of them have automatic shut-off switches, so if it gets knocked over by a person or a pet, or if something gets thrown on top of it, it will shut off. For example, you kick your covers off and they end up on top of it or a pillow lands on it, the space heater will automatically shut off.”

The space heater should have a label from a recognized testing laboratory such as UL (Underwriters Laboratory). It verifies that the heater meets voluntary U.S. safety standards.      

Always shut off your space heater when you leave the room or go to bed. Be sure to have working carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.

6. Winter chain saw safety

Using a chain saw can be dangerous anytime, but snow, ice, and cold add more potential for injury. To stay safe, be aware of your surroundings and dress appropriately.

Randy Scully, national service manager for Stihl Incorporated, says using a chain saw in winter can add risk.

“Be aware of your surroundings so you won’t slip and fall,” says Scully. “Make sure you have a good grip on your equipment and pay attention to what is going on all around you. You don’t want to have ice falling from limbs and snow falling down on you – those are distractions.

“Dress for the conditions,” he continues. “Of course, cutting wood is a physical activity and you’ll get warm as you work. So you’re going to want to be able to take some layers off as you warm up.”

Wear protective clothing. You can buy pants, chaps, and leggings made with materials that are both cut-retardant and moisture-resistant. Wear sturdy gloves, hearing and eye protection, and a helmet. A helmet and eye protection are important because frozen wood is very hard.

“It will break easier and splinter,” says Scully. “When you go to make a cut into a tree that is frozen, it will have a tendency to more easily split than wood in the summertime. So when you’re cutting, stay aware that the tree could splinter if you don’t make your cuts properly. Pay attention to what you’re doing.”

Before you start to work felling a tree, try to remove as much snow as you can around the trunk. Also, knock snow and ice off of the branches. The extra weight increases the risk of the limbs falling down on top of you.

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