Openings should be large enough to allow unobstructed access by people, including rescuers wearing PPE. (Summit Training Source, Inc. photo)

Farming Should Yield Life, Not Take It Away

Confined space training for farms is essential.

The widespread image of a farm's peaceful surroundings and fresh air is contrary to the actual work environment of a farm; it is not a care-free work setting and instead has several serious hazards.

According to the National Safety Council, agriculture is the most dangerous industry in the nation because thousands of farm workers are injured and hundreds more die in farming accidents every year. While most farmers are aware of the health and safety hazards present on farms (such as chemicals, cold/heat, electricity, lifting, machinery, pits and wells, tools, etc.), there is one hazard that stands above the rest: confined space entry. According to 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, there were 323 worker fatalities in agriculture, specifically in the many facets of crop production, 21 of which were from exposure to harmful substances or environments. Though not stated directly, confined space entry is among the reasons for exposure to harmful substances or environments. Those who work on farms should be properly trained in order to reduce human and monetary cost.

What Confined Space Means for Farms
A confined space has limited or restricted means for entry or exit and is not designed for continuous employee occupancy. These spaces contain or have the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere, a material with the potential to engulf an entrant, tapered surfaces toward a smaller area that could trap or asphyxiate an entrant, or they contain any other recognized safety or health hazard, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or heat stress.

Though farmers and farm family members are exposed to a multitude of different farm-related confined space hazards, there are no specific OSHA regulations regarding agriculture. The mandatory signage, respirators, safety harnesses, eyewash stations, and the employee training typically associated with an OSHA regulation for other industries is not required in the farm and agriculture industry. Even though farmers are responsible for providing a safe work environment for their workers under the general duty clause, this does not necessarily mean that a farm work site will have the proper safety equipment or practices in place. Additionally, a farm cannot be inspected and/or cited by an OSHA inspector if it has fewer than 10 full-time employees; therefore, farmers face significant liability exposure should a worker be injured on their farm.

Farm-Related Hazards
The modern farming techniques created in the past few decades, while efficient, have brought new dangers to farmworkers, farming families, and migrant workers who deal with confined areas. For most farms, the confined space definition includes silos, grain storage structures, liquid fertilizer or feed supplement tanks, manure pits, and controlled-atmosphere storage areas where oxygen levels may be inadequate or where toxic gases are present.

When entering a confined area such as a manure pit, a silo, a grain bin, or an inadequately ventilated building, a farmer may be at risk of being overcome by gases or dusts that can cause permanent lung damage or death. Without adequate protective equipment, gases in manure pits and silos can quickly kill an unsuspecting farmer or an untrained rescue worker who enters the area. Farmers entering grain bins while the bin is being emptied may be taking an unnecessary risk of being crushed or suffocated by flowing grain.

Additionally, farmers working in grain bins or dust-laden buildings without proper respiratory equipment to filter dusts and molds increase their chances of developing a respiratory disease, such as Farmer's Lung, a disease that permanently damages lung functions.

Safety Precautions
For a farm with any type of confined space, some general rules for safety are to avoid working in confined areas whenever possible, follow a system of safe work if working inside, and make appropriate arrangements for rescue in an emergency. If working within a confined space is unavoidable, considering other, more specific safety guidelines is essential to protect farmers and workers.

  • Supervision. Appoint someone to be responsible for seeing that the necessary precautions are taken and to check safety at each stage. The supervisor may need to be in contact with the person inside the confined space throughout the work. It will rarely, if ever, be appropriate for anyone to enter a confined space without someone remaining outside to carry out the emergency arrangements.
  • Communication. Before entering a confined space, discuss safety hazards and emergency procedures with your workers to ensure clear communication between those inside the confined space and those outside. Normal speech will be adequate for most situations, but when a breathing apparatus is being used, other methods, such as tugs on a rope, should be communicated to the person outside the danger area to ensure they will know if there is an emergency inside.
  • Testing the atmosphere. Confined spaces on farms may contain hazardous gases or insufficient oxygen to support life. The concentration of oxygen in the air should not be less than 19 percent because lower concentrations may impair awareness of any danger, causing rapid unconsciousness or leading to death. The level of carbon dioxide should be less than 0.5 percent. Retesting during the work may be necessary and can be done with suitably calibrated chemical detector tubes or portable electronic meters. All test results should be recorded.
  • Ventilation. Ventilate confined spaces whenever possible to maintain a safe atmosphere while people are working in them. It may be sufficient to leave the top and bottom hatches of silos open for 24 hours before entry, but in other cases ventilation with a blower may be necessary. Be aware that methane gas, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide can form in unventilated grain silos and manure pits and can suffocate or poison workers or explode.
  • Personal protective equipment. Reasonable measures must be taken to ensure it is safe to work in a confined space without the need for PPE, but you should also consider hazards that might arise and the need for emergency evacuation. PPE could include breathing apparatus, protective clothing, or harnesses and safety lines secured to a point outside the confined space.
  • Entry and exit. Openings should be large enough to allow unobstructed access by people, including rescuers wearing PPE. A safety sign should be posted next to these openings to prohibit unauthorized entry.
  • Emergencies. Emergency rescue arrangements must be made before anyone enters the confined space and will depend on the type of confined space, the risks, and the likely nature of an emergency rescue. Consider what you would need for rescue and resuscitation equipment, such as harnesses, lifelines, and lifting equipment, as well as the protection of rescuers. Rescuers should be properly trained and sufficiently fit to carry out their task because they may worsen the emergency if they are untrained or poorly equipped. They must be readily available and capable of using any equipment that you provide for rescue.
  • First aid. First aiders should be trained to deal with foreseeable injuries and in how to properly use any first aid equipment provided.

Many workers who enter confined spaces are unaware of the potentially hazardous nature of their actions. Several safety and health hazards present on farms are characteristic to confined spaces that can lead to bodily harm, illness, or even death. Anyone working around or in confined spaces should be properly trained on confined space entry and should be made aware of potential dangers, especially since the safe working practices may be different for each hazard. Proper training and understanding of these hazards will reduce the human and monetary cost to farmers across the country and also around the world.

1. "Agricultural Operations." Safety and Health Topics. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, n.d. Web, June 12, 2012.
2. "Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) - Industry by Event or Exposure, 2010." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Department of Labor, n.d. Web, June 13, 2012.
3. "OSHA Fact Sheet." Occupational Safety and Health Administration, September 2005. Web, June 11, 2012.
4. Steffen, Ph.D., Richard, Maureen Banks, M.S., and Robert Aherin, Ph.D. "Confined Space: Entry Training for Agriculture." UIC School of Public Health. University of Illinois at Chicago, n.d. Web, June 12, 2012.
5. Tilma, Cornita, and Howard J. Doss. "Confined Space Hazards a Threat to Farmers." National Ag Safety Database. NASD, April 2002. Web, June 11, 2012.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Katherine McCarthy is the communications coordinator for Summit Training Source, Inc. Putting her expert writing skills to work, she researches, writes, and manages Summit’s blog, as well as numerous white papers, articles, and marketing collateral. She holds a B.S. degree in Business Administration from Grand Valley State University and can be reached at [email protected] or @SafetyTraining1 on Twitter.

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