Farm Safety Roundup, Ep 2: The invisible risk of hazardous atmospheres

In farming, there are plenty of easily identifiable hazards: running PTOs, heavy equipment, an ornery cow. But some very deadly risks are invisible, as is the case with hazardous atmospheres — such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, and methane. In some situations, just one breath is enough to render someone unconscious, leaving them dependent on an outside observer for rescue.

In this episode of the Farm Safety Roundup, Shaun Haney is joined by Dean Anderson, a strategic advisor for Agriculture with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, to delve into key aspects of hazardous atmospheres; exploring what makes an atmosphere hazardous and discussing safety measures to protect both farm workers and family members from harm.

Hazardous atmospheres result from imbalances in oxygen levels, typically caused by the presence of contaminants such as gases, vapours, fumes, dust, or mists. Anderson says that these contaminants can pose a significant risk to health and safety.

He points out that some gases, such as methane and hydrogen sulphide, can be especially dangerous. Methane, for instance, is highly flammable. Hydrogen sulphide can also act as a nerve paralyzer, making it a life-threatening hazard. Furthermore, even a few seconds of oxygen depletion can lead to severe health issues, highlighting the urgency of addressing these invisible threats. (more below)

One of the biggest challenges with hazardous atmospheres on farms is the tendency towards complacency. Anderson notes that experienced farmers often become complacent regarding these potential dangers, and may forget to educate new workers or visitors about these hidden risks.

The invisibility of these hazards compounds the problem, as they can be present in confined spaces, but also in open areas, such as barns. Agitating manure or using gas-powered equipment indoors can seem like everyday practices, but they carry incredible risk, and can be fatal.

To protect against hazardous atmospheres on the farm, Anderson emphasizes several key strategies:

  • Education and Awareness: Educate all farm residents, workers, and visitors about potential hazards. Use signs to designate hazardous areas and ensure everyone is aware of the risks.
  • Supervision: Supervise individuals, especially new workers, to ensure they follow safety guidelines.
  • Written Safety Plans: Develop written safety plans that outline safety procedures and guidelines, including what to do if someone is affected by a hazardous atmosphere.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Standard dust masks may not be effective against hazardous atmospheres. Use appropriate respiratory protection and ensure proper ventilation when entering enclosed spaces.
  • Sensors and Monitors: Install carbon monoxide and methane sensors in barns and other critical areas to detect gases early and take preventive measures.
  • Communication: Always let someone know when you are entering an area with potential hazards, such as grain bins or silos. This ensures a timely response in case of an emergency.
  • Avoiding Gas-Powered Equipment Indoors: Never run gas-powered equipment inside closed spaces to prevent the buildup of harmful gases.
  • Educate Children: Teach children about the dangers of hazardous atmospheres and other farm-related hazards. Encourage them to be proactive in seeking help and assistance if they suspect an issue.

It is vital to regularly review safety procedures with all individuals on the farm. Whether through tailgate talks, toolbox discussions, or kitchen table conversations, ongoing education and awareness-building are crucial. By instilling a culture of safety and involving family members and children in safety discussions, farms can significantly reduce the risks associated with hazardous atmospheres.

Hazardous atmospheres are a hidden but potentially lethal threat on farms. It’s important to recognize these dangers and take proactive measures to protect farm workers and family members. By staying informed, adhering to safety guidelines, and maintaining a strong safety culture, farms can minimize the risks associated with hazardous atmospheres and ensure a safer, more secure environment for everyone involved.

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