You can look at it as one of the good sides of COVID-19. It’s reminding all of us that emergencies do happen, they can come when you least expect them, and they can upset practically every part of your operation.
Even before COVID-19, it was easy to find experts eager to tell us why we needed to prepare for everything ranging from pandemics to any of the other farm catastrophes that can strike at any time — a barn fire, a heart attack, a serious farm accident.
Now, it isn’t just the experts. More and more farmers agree they need an emergency response plan. But how do you start?
To Robert Gobeil, agricultural health and safety specialist at the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA), the answer begins with just two words: Get proactive.
Whether it’s a large farm operation with many workers or a small, family farm, Gobeil says it’s wise to get everyone involved in emergency planning right from the start because it’s likely that everybody will have different views on what emergencies might arise, what the damage will be and how they should react.
Other emergency experts make the same recommendation. “Typically,” says Morag Marjerison, farm safety consultant with Keystone Agricultural producers (KAP) Farm Safety Program, “I ask people to get together in a group and talk about all the things that could go wrong, and then for each of those things, think about what their role would be and what equipment or other things they need in place to deal with that situation, and whether they have them or need to source them.”
The next logical step is to assess whether people on the farm know how to use emergency equipment or respond to that emergency. Even when it comes to operating everyday machinery like tractors and combines, it isn’t safe to assume that everyone knows what they would need to know in an emergency situation.
“It is not uncommon for family members who do not normally operate equipment to be unaware of how the basic control functions work,” says Marjerison. “If they are taught basics, like how to turn off the equipment, it could be valuable if an incident occurs.”
Wherever possible, store equipment where it’s likely to be most needed, and at the very least make sure everyone knows where all the pieces of equipment are, says Marjerison. “For example, if a ladder is needed during an emergency, is it where it should be, or was it left over at the other yard?”
Who can you call?
What if you need extra help to keep the farm running? COVID-19 has reminded us how important it is to have extra help on standby in case key team members either become sick, have to self-isolate or are hospitalized, so it’s a good idea to initiate that discussion with a neighbour or another trusted person. If something happens to you, can your spouse call them for help, knowing you’ll work out the financial side so it’s fair to everyone?
If no help is available, says Gobeil, simple project management principles say to do whatever a person and their team can do to maintain some level of operations. “Some production, some activity is better than none, and it may involve prioritizing tasks or downsizing the operations,” he says.
Train and practise
Once the emergency response plan is in place, it’s important to communicate its contents properly and to regularly train everybody on the farm on their responsibilities in different scenarios.
“Practise,” says Gobeil. “For example, what would we do if a farmhand calls in sick? … It’s one thing having policies and procedures in place, and it’s another thing having a trained workforce. A lot of people in my experience, have a great program and assume that everyone knows what’s going on, but that may not be the case.”
Similar to how schools run fire drills, practising emergency scenarios is important to ensure people respond calmly and automatically in a panic situation. For farms, the ideal might be to review safety and emergency procedures on a seasonal basis, says Marjerison.
“Asking farmers to think about the season that’s just coming up makes a lot of sense,” she says. “If they are going into seeding there will be different risks than they have had for the last nine months of the year, so it’s useful to have a discussion pre-season as to what are the potential hazards. It doesn’t have to be formal … it can be a 15-minute discussion over coffee, just as a reminder.”
Although there is formal safety training available from various sources, including a lot of information online, sometimes using local networks is just as effective to help train the farm team. Fire safety is a great example of that because in rural areas local firefighters are often happy to visit the farm or put on workshops to discuss fire awareness and safety.
Farmers use a lot of chemicals, and Marjerison says she would like to see more of them taking the time to fully understand what they are dealing with. This can start with reading the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that comes with each product, and which should always be kept on hand in case of an accident or spill.
“The MSDS has a lot more information than just the product label, and suppliers by law are obliged to provide them,” says Marjerison.
MDSD sheets allow farmers to know exactly what they are working with and also the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) that they need to have in place, such as eye protection, to lessen the risk of emergencies happening. “What happens if you have a spill, how do you react?” says Thea Green, program manager at KAP. “It’s not only about being prepared for emergencies, but also emergency prevention at the same time.”
Know your legal obligations
In many industries, anyone working with or around hazardous materials must by law be WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) trained.
Farmers should be aware, says Marjerison, that if they have employees, they may also have a legal responsibility to make sure they have this kind of training. (The WHMIS certification program is available for a small fee online.)
“Any farm that hires a non-family member as a worker is under the same obligations as other industries to make sure they get training,” says Marjerison, who adds farmers need to be aware of their liability with regard to workplace health and safety, even for unpaid workers. “Any person working for you is a worker … the neighbour who comes to help you out, he’s now a worker, even if you’re not paying him.”
There are many resources farm operators and managers can access to help develop an emergency plan. As an example, in Manitoba, CASA and SAFE Work Manitoba offer templates and instructions on their websites, and the Manitoba Farm Safety program at KAP assists farmers with the process of creating an emergency plan for their operations.
“We are available to help farmers who want to create an emergency plan work on any aspect of health and safety for their farms, and provide information and assistance to farmers during COVID-19 and beyond,” says Green.
Other provincial safety organizations and farm groups also have resources available or can point farmers in the right direction.
Aspects of an emergency plan are often the same across many different types of sectors, so it’s possible to borrow and tweak some of the structure and outlines from the construction industry for example, but it’s crucial that each farm creates a plan that is specific to them and fits the needs and realities of the operation.
“When you are drafting an emergency response plan, you need to factor in the scope of work specific to your operation,” says Gobeil. “You need to ask the question ‘What could possibly happen to affect our operation?’ Then you list those factors and create a specific plan for each of them to proactively prepare for them.”
Today’s plan should likely include a workplace pandemic plan, says Gobeil. “I’m not talking necessarily COVID-19, it could also cover the flu, other viruses, the common cold, there are all kinds of things that could put an operation on hold.”
Model good behaviour
The ultimate responsibility for farm safety and for developing and following an emergency plan is with the farm owner or employer, so it’s important they model the behaviour they expect of others.
“Taking the time and educating your workforce and showing the worker-level employees that you care about their well-being speaks volumes and helps so much with creating a positive safety culture and making things more efficient on the farm,” says Gobeil. “When we’re talking about practising good hygiene, especially on a farm operation in regards to biosecurity and human interactions right now, practising social distancing and so on, lead by example. The worst thing that can happen for an employer is to have farm workers seeing you not practice what you’re preaching. We all need to work together as a team to get through these situations.”
A unique situation for farms in general is of course the fact that they are not only a workplace, but also a place where people live, which can introduce new elements to the emergency or farm safety plan that other sectors don’t often have to consider, such as designated areas where visitors and family members are authorized or not authorized to go.
“It’s a good idea to do orientations for visitors, and even for family and make sure that you have safe play areas designated and marked out for children, as well as for visitors to the farm,” says Gobeil. “It can be as simple as hanging a sign, ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ or ‘Do Not Enter.’ It’s about looking out for family and everyone’s best interests.”
Especially in remote agricultural settings, having backup supplies on hand is often crucial to keep operations running smoothly, so checking inventories should be a part of the regular hazard assessment and inspections.
“When you do your weekly or monthly inspection, it’s not just making sure the first aid kit is stocked up and ready to go. Also make sure that you have your one-month supply of livestock vaccinations or whatever it is you need in place to make sure you can continue on,” says Gobeil. “It comes down to being proactive again. Far too often, we all put things off until things are critical.”
That’s why creating a safety culture is crucial, our experts agree.
“Make the connection between safety and actually improving efficiencies on the operation and ensuring that you can continue at least a certain level of production,” says Gobeil. “That’s when the safety culture improves and builds buy-in into a safety program, not just by the employer, but with the staff as well.”
What has COVID-19 taught us about emergency planning?
When you leaf through any of the current crop of farm emergency planning brochures, you’re unlikely to see many headlines about pandemics as a possible farm emergency. After the novel coronavirus, you can expect that to change.
COVID-19 has forced everyone to make changes in their daily habits in their homes and workplaces, and the farm is no exception.
What’s important to remember, says Thea Green, program manager at Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP), is that COVID-19 is a hazard that has a lot in common with other hazards that can affect the farm. That means it needs to be identified, its impact assessed and a plan developed to deal with it, which is what exactly began happening on farms, albeit on the fly this spring.
Below are 12 tips from Green and Morag Marjerison, farm safety consultant with KAP’s Farm Safety Program. Some are inspired by the current global pandemic, and things that farmers are doing to keep their farms functioning and their farm team healthy, but all of them are just good practice at all times, and should be part of anyone’s emergency plan.
1. Have backup people.
Make sure someone can step in to cover if key people on the farm are not available. Farmers often have neighbours or friends willing to help seed or calve or whatever is ahead. COVID-19 notches it up, however. Double-check that somebody will be available to help out, given that some of your usual choices could be affected by the same situation.
2. Put up a whiteboard.
Some farms have whiteboards in the shop to list upcoming tasks. In an emergency, it can be a big help. If the farmer or manager isn’t available, somebody can look at the list and see what needs to be done.
3. Have the necessary PPE.
If there is one thing COVID-19 has taught everyone it is how quickly supplies of personal protective equipment can run out, so check the first-aid kit and also look at material safety data sheets to see what safety supplies you need.
4. Have parts on hand.
COVID-19 led to longer delivery times. Consider keeping more maintenance supplies and parts on hand.
5. Create teams.
To prevent a whole workforce from potentially getting ill, many farmers are restricting the number of workers using the same piece of equipment and having them work in small teams. Allocating one or two people to use a specific piece of equipment reduces the potential for cross-contamination, and for jobs on the farm where it’s not always possible to practice six-foot social distancing, pairing people who stick together throughout the season may also help reduce the risk.
6. Limiting access.
Does everyone need access to every building? Limit contact by, for example, designating one person who goes into the shop and collects whatever everyone needs to go their jobs for the day.
7. Social distancing.
Quite a few farmers are changing the regular practice of having everyone get together at the start of the morning over coffee. Experienced workers often don’t need to go to the shop for instructions, but can arrive and get on with the job.
8. Keep workers in touch with each other.
It’s great that so many of us have cellphones for staying in touch, but make sure you maintain and share a list of each other’s numbers.
9. Make people feel safe.
Some workers may not want to come to work when they don’t feel safe. Farm owners and managers need to demonstrate that they understand the risks associated with COVID-19 and other potential hazards. Documentation helps too. If workers share a tractor, and the procedure is to sanitize it at the beginning and end of every shift, having a log or board to show it is being done helps everyone feel safer.
10. Take care of yourself.
Fatigue can affect decision-making and have an impact on safety. Farmers are more at risk right now of working more hours, especially if workers or family members fall ill or have to self-isolate. It’s vital that people check in with each other’s mental health and make some time each day for themselves and others to protect their own well-being.
11. Create a contact list.
There is often only one person on the farm who knows where to order diesel from or who to call for electrical repairs, so having a contact list for everything the farm needs that everyone can access is hugely helpful.
12. Do some cross-training.
During the off-season, when there is more time, consider training people in someone else’s role so they can potentially take over in an emergency.
List of emergency planning resources