Tips For Managing Farm Labor In Winter

December 30, 2020

Cold weather and changing conditions make winter work challenging. Thinking about this is extra important for you as agriculture requires managing an outdoor workforce. The challenges include increased risk of accidents and injuries, an unpredictable schedule, and making sure you have enough workers come the new year. This post will cover these challenges and provide ideas for addressing them.

1. Focus safety meetings on cold stress and related

Cold stress is a term used by OSHA to describe injuries and illnesses that result from low temperatures. Other related injuries can occur too, like slips, trips, and falls. Use your regular safety meetings and training sessions to get workers thinking about the obvious risks they face in the field, but also risks they may not think about in winter, like dehydration. The most effective and engaging training is that which is relevant and teaches your workers something interesting.


Here are a few topic ideas:


Besides choosing a relevant topic, it helps to add context for your employees. This can be as simple as letting employees know about a recent near-miss. Growers that add context to their safety meeting see increased worker engagement during the training. Increased engagement means fewer injuries. Ultimately though, injuries will occur so keeping records of safety meetings, topics, and participation is key to creating a strong paper trail in case of compliance visits.


2. Remind workers about safety when severe weather occurs

In 2014 there were over 42,000 workplace accidents involving ice, sleet, or snow. Whether they work in the orchard, the vineyard, or the field, farmworkers are exposed to this higher risk environment nearly 100% of the time. While safety meetings are great, people quickly forget. Moreover, your safety meeting probably won't coincide with a storm or cold snap. So what specific weather should prompt you to alert your employees? 

Cold Temperatures & High Winds

There is no specific threshold for when it is "dangerously" cold. Yet, when combined with wind even temperatures in the 40s can be dangerous as the wind causes heat to leave the body faster. Furthermore, wind poses an obvious danger to workers on orchard ladders or platforms, but when combined with cold can cause loss of feeling and grip strength in the hands potentially resulting in more falls and reduced productivity.

If you believe the conditions warrant it, alert appropriate employees to the risk and communicate when and how they should take breaks, warm up, and other precautions you have for your farm.

wind chill safety chart

Poor Road Conditions

Road accidents involving a farm vehicle are five times more likely to result in death than other motor vehicle accidents. The effects of reduced visibility and ice and snow on the roadway make it harder for regular drivers to see and stop for farm equipment. When winter weather first hits, ask your mechanics to inspect the reflectors and lighting on all trucks, equipment, and implements. Tell your drivers to make sure that the lights and reflectors on their vehicles are not covered with snow or mud.

One more thing on roads - think about your employee’s commute to work too. Is it even safe for them to drive to work today? By even mentioning this off-hand to your employees, you’ll be subtly tying it into their personal lives and you’ll likely get better understanding and compliance when they are on the job.


3. Communicate work changes clearly & directly

Changes in work schedule or location are not uncommon in the winter. Communicating these changes is critical to lowering costs and maintaining the relationship with your workers. 

For example, if you need your employees at a different location, but they arrive to work at the normal place you may have to pay them the time it takes to drive to the new location. If the roads are bad, it may take them longer to make the trip, driving up your unproductive labor costs even more.

If you can alert your employees to work cancellations as soon as possible you can save them time and money on gas, childcare, and more. They'll be happy and grateful.

Once you know what you want to say make sure it's translated into your workers' preferred language. You can use your existing phone tree to get the word out, but that tends to be inaccurate and you can't verify who got the message. Texting each worker doesn't work for those who can't read, and calling each worker is a non-starter if you have a large farm. A bulk communication tool designed for agriculture, like Harvust, can meet all of these demands under one roof. 


4. Ask workers to come work for your farm again 

Segment your inactive employees and send them a message inviting them to come back for the upcoming season. Using the same tips from above, let them know what work is available when it is available, and an address, or even better, a Google Maps pin to get directions to your office. 


Ready for winter?

These brief tips should serve as an inspiration to help you through winter and build the foundation for a smoother new year. Chances are other farms your employees have worked at in the past aren't this proactive at keeping them safe, and connected. This will build employee loyalty, and satisfaction setting you up for a more productive workforce.