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Making it home from your agriculture job alive isn’t a given. But it should be.

Portrait of young dairy farmer prepping his cows for milking at this family’s dairy farm.

Farming is one of the oldest and most dangerous professions in Canada. It needs to get better—but how? Beyond proper safety protocols, involved supervisors and suitable training, we need to instill a safety mindset in our youth, otherwise, we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes. 

Ryan Dick has shattered his forearm so severely that fragments of bone are in his spine. He has also nearly had his fingers ripped off, inhaled fatal fumes, and had several close calls involving heavy equipment.

Given the severity of Ryan’s injuries and the number of near-death experiences he’s suffered over the years, you might guess he’s a double agent or a stuntman. But no. He’s actually a grain farmer and livestock producer in eastern Ontario. Starting out in the profession at a young age, dangerous and life-threatening experiences have been a part of his everyday life. That’s why Ryan is applauding a new blog that encourages parents to talk safety with their kids before they enter the workforce.

“There's a reason it's one of the most dangerous professions in Canada,” says Ryan. “We have one of the smallest workforces, but some of the highest injury ratings. And honestly, the numbers don't even do it justice, because we typically don’t report illnesses in agriculture.” Knowing the risks before beginning a job in agriculture is so important. 

Good supervisors and proper training are key to worker health and safety

When Ryan was just 14, the tractor he was driving sunk into a washout. The tractor stalled suddenly, slamming the steering wheel into Ryan’s arm, shattering his forearm. With no cell phones, he travelled a painful quarter mile on foot, before finding help and was rushed to the hospital. The injury still affects him today. 

“Years later, they found bone fragments on my spine, assuming it was from how badly I shattered my arm and fragments entered the bloodstream,” he says. But it could have been so much worse. “If I had been standing, I would have been thrown off and probably killed flat out,” he says. “Oddly enough, I had just sat down.” 

His life, it turns out, had been spared by luck—not by the person who was supposed to keep him safe: his supervisor. Unbeknownst to him, a worker in the field had informed the farm supervisor several days prior that there was a washout and that it needed to be marked. The supervisor did nothing. 

As Ryan changed jobs, his exposure to danger continued. As a young adult, he worked for a company that did custom agricultural extermination, involving the application of herbicides. Because he was unfamiliar with the product he was being asked to use, he checked in with his supervisor. “I've never sprayed this crop before, and I've specifically never sprayed this chemical before,” he recalls saying. “Is there anything I need to worry about?” The supervisor gave him the all clear but he didn’t feel right about working with an unknown chemical, so he checked for himself. “I went out to the chemical storage, grabbed the (safety data) sheet and the product label. Right there in large letters it said: ‘Fatal if inhaled.’” 

This is why, he explains, supervisors need to be aware of what chemicals are on their worksite and train their new workers accordingly. If he hadn't taken the proper precautions himself, he could have died. 

Advice for teens and young adults entering the workforce: It can happen to you 

Ryan is still farming, but his day job is now focused on keeping farms, farm operators and their workers safe as a Health and Safety Consultant at Workplace Safety & Prevention Services. He’s passionate about protecting farmers and the people who work for them, at any age. He understands the position of young workers. They may not have been properly trained on how to do their job safely and may feel uncomfortable asking questions. Wanting to do a “good job” they may act before thinking of long-term consequences or believe that an injury “won’t happen to me”.

“Kids go into the workforce with a sense of invincibility,” he says. “They’re happy to have a few bucks in their pocket and a little independence. Safety is often the last thing on their minds.”

This is why parents are the focus of a new blog called First Job, Safe Job.  “We may not always feel it, but we are still pretty significant influencers in our kids’ lives. We can help prepare them by talking about workplace safety. And helping them understand their rights.”

Ryan’s 14-year-old daughter Bronwynn is very involved with the family farm. “She owns her own goat herd and chicken flock, but we don't do equipment work with her,” says Ryan. “I don't want to risk that until she's old enough to really understand that the tractor is not a toy. It is a deadly piece of machinery that if it's not respected will have drastic consequences.” 

Despite Ryan’s adherence to health and safety practices, Bronwynn has already sustained two injuries on the farm. One summer day she wore her flip flops to go check on their chickens. On her way back, she tripped on one of the chicken crates.

“I have hounded her for years about the importance of proper footwear. She always rolls her eyes at me because I'm just an over-the-top ‘safety dad’,” he says. “She put her bone through her arm and ended up in the hospital. She has not cut those corners since.”

Bronwynn wants to start applying for part-time jobs outside of agriculture. After running a quick Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) Safety Check to access company injury records, Ryan has vetoed some of her requests.

Ryan says Brownynn’s experience on the farm will help prepare her to deal with health and safety hazards at other jobs, but other young workers can be prepared too. The First Job, Safe Job Initiative wants to make sure of that. 

Ryan wants young workers to know they are not invincible. That’s why he’s a strong believer in making families aware of the risks when their teens start a new job. Bad things can, and do, happen to young farm workers. “You always hear about this stuff happening to somebody else,” he says. “But you don't know what you don’t know until it’s too late.” 

For a comprehensive look at how parents can help make workplaces safer for their children, check out the other blog posts on the First Job, Safe Job website. Book an in-school Health & Safety Awareness (HSAP) Presentation by filling out this HSAP booking form.  Empower yourself and your kids.

The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date