Agriculture is essential to the welfare of a country. Good farming processes feed a nation, while poor farming methods could endanger the lives of more than just the farmers. SHEQ MANAGEMENT takes a look at occupational health and safety in agriculture.

Every aspect of safety, health, environment and quality (SHEQ) is important to the agricultural sector. Farmers need to consider the safety procedures that protect the employees; their own health as well as that of their workers and livestock; the environmental impact of farming processes, including pesticides; and the quality of produce delivered.

An important part of farming is ensuring workers are safe so that they can be productive. However, as Advocate Hendrik Terblanche, MD at Legricon, noted in a 2018 interview with SHEQ MANAGEMENT, there are no specific health and safety regulations for the agricultural sector.

Often, the industry simply complies with the same regulations as factories, such as regulations for hazardous chemical substances (including pesticides) and for driven machinery.

Terblanche comments: “It is quite costly for a farmer in an isolated rural location to obtain the services of an approved inspection authority to conduct hygiene surveys. This could result in a high instance of non-compliance to the legal requirements in the sector.”

Heavy machinery or equipment might be operated by unskilled workers. There might be no health and safety training and no systems in place to identify hazardous areas or dangerous practices.

Despite the lack of compliance, there are still many issues facing the industry; such as exposure to extreme weather, fatigue, noise, vibrations, contact with animals and animal excrement, exposure to chemicals, diseases, security risks and natural disasters including droughts or flooding.

Farmers should be prepared for all of these SHEQ issues. Well-prepared workers can also assist in minimising harm. Terblanche encourages farmers to invest in personal protective equipment (PPE), a first-aid kit and portable fire extinguishers. Farmers can also introduce basic health and safety training and good practices such as encouraging employees to wear sunscreen.

Workers can be supplied with safety boots, hearing protection and gloves to prepare them for their working environment. Depending on the application, farmers can also make use of Gloves in a Bottle lotion from Medloyd Healthcare, which locks out moisture-depleting irritants for between four to 12 hours and can endure multiple washes. It prevents the skin from drying out.

“Although the remoteness of farms could be a challenge for some compliance requirements, the Department of Labour has a booklet (available in Afrikaans and English) discussing health and safety in the agricultural sector. This could be a useful starting point for many farmers,” Terblanche says.

The health of farmers and their employees is just as important as safety. Farmers should ensure that employees are in good shape, have access to the necessary healthcare and are aware of the dangers of drug or alcohol abuse. Farmers should also keep an eye out for abuse of alcohol and drugs at work as this could lead to injuries or accidents.

Farmers are at great risk of depression. In an article for Farmer’s Weekly, Lindi Botha notes that farmers face numerous uncertainties and often live quite isolated lives, which contributes to stress and could lead to depression. Although there are no studies on depression rates among South African farmers, global studies indicate a high occurrence of depression in the industry worldwide.

Botha writes: “A 2014 Australian study, found that farmers had a suicide rate one-and-a-half times that of the general population. The HUNT study (Performed by the HUNT Research Centre at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology) found that both male and female farmers had higher levels of depression symptoms than those of the general working population.”

A feeling of control over one’s life and situation is important for mental health. The high level of uncertainty in agriculture means that it is often difficult for farmers to feel in control. Botha quotes clinical psychologist Adri Prinsloo: “It affects their sense of self-worth and self-efficacy negatively when their coping strategies seem to be failing; the plans they had for practical solutions don’t work; and when they feel unsupported by government or threatened.”

Farmers might also be more reluctant to seek help. Botha notes: “The HUNT study found that mental illness appeared to be particularly stigmatising in farming communities, and farmers seemed reluctant to contact the healthcare system for help for mental-health problems.”

A coping mechanism might include drinking heavily, which in turn causes other health concerns and puts farmers and their employees at risk. It is important for farmers and their employees to consult a medical professional if they suffer from depression.

Farmers also need to consider the impact of their farming methods and the use of pesticides on the environment. They need to take responsibility for the produce they deliver and ensure it is safe to consume and of high quality. Farmers should be aware of any diseases threatening livestock.

Agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo notes in an article for Business Day that South Africa faces some level of inefficiencies in food safety monitoring systems.

Farmers should be careful of fraud, which could damage the reputation of a product. For example, due to a high number of counterfeit honey products exported from China, Chinese farmers have become synonymous with food fraud. As a result, conscious consumers might actively avoid purchasing honey produced in China.

Farmers should also take care to label their produce correctly. In 2018, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked South Africa at 44th out of 133 countries worldwide in the 2017 Global Food Security Index. South Africa was ranked the most food secure country on the continent. The rankings are determined by the affordability, availability, quality and safety of food.

Sihlobo notes: “While affordability and availability have been a key focus, the quality and safety aspects have seldom been mentioned in debates on food security. This is quite regrettable, as food quality and safety are important levers of food security.”

In conclusion, to ensure quality produce and food safety, it is important for the agricultural sector to invest in health and safety initiatives, despite a lack of regulations.

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