A John Deere Publication
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Phil and Katie Keddy strive to create a culture of safety at their horticulture farm in Nova Scotia.

Agriculture, Farm Operation   September 01, 2023

Stay Safe Out There


Fatigue can be a killer at harvest time.

Mort de fatigue (dead tired) road signs are everywhere in Quebec. They're part of a campaign by the Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec warning drivers to pull over before they nod off and cause an accident. It's good advice for farmers, too.

Farming remains one of the most dangerous occupations in Canada. While fatality numbers have dropped significantly since the turn of the century, 70 people still die annually in on-farm accidents in Canada; ten times that number are injured badly enough to miss work. A 2021 study by the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, found that stress and fatigue are often key factors.

"The risk of having an accident is much higher when you're overtired," says Katie Keddy, President of Farm Safe Nova Scotia from Lakeville, N.S., where she farms with her husband Phil and his family. "Your reflexes are slower, and you're more easily distracted. You might not notice something unsafe right in front of you because your body isn't working at its best."

Tired and grumpy people running farm equipment aren't just unpleasant to work with, they are potentially dangerous. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety's website says running farm machinery when you are exhausted is as risky as operating it under the influence of alcohol. Their studies showed being awake for 17 hours is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol content of 0.05 and being up for 21 hours equals a blood alcohol level of 0.08, the legal limit in both Canada and the U.S.

The problem is compounded during harvest when long days are often the norm for weeks on end. Farmers expect themselves, and their employees, to ignore how tired they are and just push on despite their exhaustion. Everyone knows the weather might change and there's still crop out in the field. But fatigue is such a huge risk factor that strategies to combat it should be part of every farm's safety plan.

"Farm owners need to lead by example and develop a culture of safety at their farm," Keddy says. "It needs to be part of everyday conversations at the farm. We need to look out for each other and check in with each other regularly. Producers and employees should be prepared to stop someone if they notice they seem stressed, or are showing signs of fatigue, to reduce the chances of having costly accidents."

Signs of fatigue include drowsiness, apathy, irritability, poor concentration, slow reflexes, loss of appetite, dizziness, headaches, vision impairments and mood changes. They can be more pronounced first thing in the morning or late in the evening. Having a poor diet and skipping meals can make it worse.

Above. Accidents often happen either first thing in the morning or during late-night tasks. So it's especially important to slow down and take extra care and pay attention while doing these jobs.

Fighting fatigue. There is no single way to prevent your workforce from becoming dangerously exhausted during the busy seasons. That's why implementing a culture of safety on your farm is so important. Start by maintaining regular work hours as much as possible.

Accidents often happen first thing in the morning or during late-night tasks. So slow down and pay close attention to the job being done in those hours. Taking shortcuts can often cause mishaps.

Boredom is also a huge issue when operating machinery for hours on end. Even things like requiring operators to periodically get out of the cab and do a walk-around inspection to spot any problems developing can be reinvigorating. It has the added benefit of giving them a bit of physical activity and doing a different task to break up the monotony of the day.

"Just a second of inattention can lead to disaster when you are operating large equipment," Keddy says. "That's why it's so important to make safety a priority." ‡

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