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How to Stay Safe on the Farm This Winter

By Marybeth Vargha

The crops are in, the last harvest finished, and you’re heading into your hibernation phase, enjoying some relaxation with the guitar and hanging out more with the kids. But even in this slower season, farmers are injured and accidents happen. When you think about it, the cold creates many hazards to be aware of.

Firstly, pay attention to safe heating in all of your farm buildings. One January, a friend and I were at the local gym with the kids when he got the call from his wife at home. A neighbor saw smoke coming from the barn and the fire department was in full swing fighting a fire they couldn’t quite see. He knew right away exactly what it was – a very attentive sow liked to build up hay for her piglets and it must have gotten too close to the heat lamp he had set up. When he got there, the animals were all safe and the firemen were hosing down the barn. He took them in directly to where the fire was and they got it out quickly. Not too much damage was done to the barn, but he lost all of his feed and spring seed from all the water. Even this small fire was very costly.

It’s always a good idea to make sure everyone on the farm knows what to do in case of fire. Not just for the house, but make plans for all your buildings – where to evacuate any animals, what resources are available for the firefighters, and are there any hazards in the buildings or around the property. It’s great to share information with a neighboring farmer. Exchange your fire response plans and phone numbers in case you’re not around when something happens. Fire departments are always very open to getting your plans as well.

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NYCAMH

NYCAMH is always available to help you with your safety efforts. Visit the website WWW.NYCAMH.ORG for information about our free programs and additional resources. Contact NYCAMH at 800-343-7527 or e-mail info@nycamh.org if you are interested in on-farm safety consultations and trainings or the Farm Emergency Response Program, which offers trainings in fire safety, emergency preparedness, and first aid/CPR trainings. Trainings are available in English and Spanish. NYCAMH is a program of Bassett Healthcare Network, enhancing agricultural and rural health by preventing and treating occupational injury and illness.

If a small fire does break out, before trying to fight it make sure everyone gets to safety and you call for help. You may be able to put it out with a fire extinguisher if you know how to use it and act quickly.  Remember to PASS: Pull, Aim, Squeeze and Sweep.

Pull: Pull the pin at the top of the extinguisher. This lets you squeeze the handle to discharge it. Aim: Don’t aim for the flames near the top of the fire. You must aim for the base of the fire. Squeeze: Squeeze the handle to release the extinguishing agent. When you let go of the handle the discharge will stop. Sweep: Using a sweeping motion, move the extinguisher back and forth from side to side to put the fire out.

Always stay at a safe distance and don’t ever turn your back on a fire. If the fire starts to spread and get out of control, evacuate the area immediately. Remember, fire can spread quickly!

When it’s cold, it may be your instinct to finish your farm chores quickly so you can get back to the woodstove. But speed under these conditions can be disastrous. Equipment freezes right when you need to run it.  Why shut it off when you can just reach in and thaw something or grab the frozen piece of chop?  As one farmer said, “You can do it a hundred times without any problem, but there could always be that last time you’ll never be able to do it again.” Even when you turn off the power, there will still be stored energy in machinery that can catch a hand or foot so stay away from any moving parts until you know it’s safe.

Sometimes you’re just not prepared for what the cold can do. Like the farmer spreading manure who was knocked out by a frozen flying chunk. He came to just as the tractor was about to go onto the road. He’s lucky he stayed in his seat. If the winter is colder than usual, there could be ice where you’ve never had it before. Last winter was one such deep freeze that a farmer was carefully crossing a stream in a small tractor when he realized he wasn’t on the shore but on ice, which suddenly gave way on one side and the tractor ended up in the stream. Another lucky guy, he was able to jump off his seat quickly before being trapped in the freezing water.

And don’t forget that you can freeze pretty easily under the right conditions. It may be too subtle to notice until you get back into the house. I’ve heard several stories of pitch forks going through a foot in a rubber boot without the farmer feeling a thing. By the time the injury was noticed, there was a lot of bleeding and plenty of time for an infection to take hold.

Be mindful of the first signs of trouble. Red and swollen skin on the hands, feet, ear and nose is a sign of frostnip, a precursor to frostbite. Skin that looks white, waxy or grayish yellow is a first sign of frozen tissue, or frostbite. Superficial frostbite is when the skin feels cold, numb and stiff but the underlying tissue is soft when pressed; deep frostbite is when the skin is cold, hard, and cannot be depressed. These conditions can lead to gangrene and possibly amputations. Take due diligence to cover your exposed skin when you need to.

Don’t skimp on good footwear in the winter – you need to keep your skin dry and warm.  Warm for obvious reasons, but dry to prevent trench foot (or immersion foot). Trench foot is redness, swelling, numbness and blisters in the feet, a condition caused by lengthy exposure to wet, cold conditions. It doesn’t need to be freezing; trench foot can occur at air temperatures as high as 60 degrees if your feet are wet. To prevent this condition, try winter boots that are a little big to allow for extra layers of socks. Pac-type boots with removable felt liners are good for farm work. Just make sure to change any wet socks or liners as soon as possible.

Staying dry is essential in the winter. Wet clothing will draw heat out of your body through evaporation, increasing your risk of hypothermia. Layers are a great idea, especially if you start with material next to your skin that will wick away moisture, like polypropylene thermal underwear.

Enjoy the winter season. Stay safe and healthy to keep your farm going!

Marybeth Vargha works for the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health in Fly Creek, NY and with her family at Big Sky Farms. She can be reached at (607)547-6023 or marybeth.vargha@bassett.org.

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