For most farmers in Ontario, working alone is just part of the job. “Seventy percent of farms in Ontario are owner-operated without employees, so there’s a lot of working alone,” says Dean Anderson, Strategic Advisor for Agriculture with WSPS. We know that working alone can raise your risk of injury. We also know that it’s the leading cause of stress in the agriculture industry. We may not be able to eliminate working alone in farming, but we can look for ways to make it safer and more productive.
For those farms that have a crew, it’s important for employers to assess and understand the work they are asking their employees to do, such as being alone in a tractor for long hours or repairing a fence alone in a remote area. “In these cases, the owner/supervisor needs to make sure the worker feels connected while they are working. You need to check in with them and make sure that everything is going well,” says Dean. In other words, don’t send an employee off to work alone for several hours without any communication. “Communication is critical,” reminds Dean.
If you sustain an injury in an isolated location or succumb to a sudden illness with no one around to help, the situation could become critical quickly. Most of us understand the obvious physical risks. However, working long hours alone can also exacerbate one’s mental state. For those whose livelihood depends on successful harvests and other intangibles, these extended times alone are fertile ground for problems and concerns to take hold and become amplified in our minds. If working alone is unavoidable, follow these tips to do it safely.
6 tips to work alone safely
Complete a hazard assessment. A hazard assessment is a safety staple for any industry. Agriculture is no different. Break down the tasks that each worker will complete each day, assess the related hazards, and discuss how they will be mitigated. Review how to safely operate equipment with your workers—even if they’ve been using this type of equipment for years.
Plan for breakdowns. Test equipment to ensure it’s in good working order before someone heads out to use it on their own. If a tractor, combine, or vehicle breaks down far from others, it’s a good idea to have a contingency plan in place. For example, designate who will go out to meet the stranded worker and how they will get there. Regular communication is a key component of working alone safely.
Create a check-in schedule. Make sure someone knows when and where you are planning to work with a regular check-in schedule. For example, plan for a phone call or video chat every hour. Following a check-in schedule either confirms that everything is going well or alerts you that there’s a problem. For employers and supervisors, having a check-in schedule in place demonstrates that you are doing your due diligence to protect your workers. If you don’t have employees, have your spouse or neighbour check-in with you.
Keep your phone charged and on you. “If an incident happens and your phone is in the tractor, you likely aren’t going to be able to reach it,” says Dean. Rather than putting your phone in a bag or leaving it somewhere on the equipment you’re using, it’s better to keep it in a secure pocket that you can easily access. If something happens and you need to call for help, you’ll want to have your phone within reach.
Prepare for wildlife encounters. When you complete a hazard assessment, include the likelihood of wildlife encounters. Outline what type of animals you may come across based on your region and develop a plan for dealing with them safely. Ensure that everyone is trained on this plan and has the required tools and equipment.
Take breaks and socialize. You won’t be productive if you burn out. Breaks not only promote stretching, which helps to combat musculoskeletal disorders, but they also help keep your mental focus. Take a walk, eat a meal, or have a chat with someone. Making time to be with family or visit friends helps to maintain those important social connections, which helps to maintain positive mental health.
Looking for more farm safety resources? Visit WSPS’ Agriculture and Horticulture Safety Centre for resources, videos, training, and more.