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Some may think it is overboard, but homestead safety is very important to me. In 30 years of Army and manufacturing, safety is something I have dealt with on a daily basis. I have to work solo quite often, so being safe is not an option. A few minutes time and a few dollars for protective gear improves homestead safety. Living to build another day is priceless. Safety isn’t just something you do to keep from getting a write-up at work. Safe practices are what you do to keep all your digits and keep working. Performing a risk assessment takes just a few minutes. Following safe practices is better than a trip to the Emergency Room!
- Identify the Risk – this is going to vary with the job.
Take a few moments at the start of the job to determine what risks are present.
- Evaluate the Risk – how big a hazard is the risk?
Could it result in injury or death? Can you make a mental note of and work around it? Do you need to make some changes in the work area?
- Eliminate the Risk – eliminate hazards from your work area
- Substitute the Risk – replace the risk with something less hazardous
- Isolate the Risk – contain the risk in a location away from other hazards or workers
- Use Personal Protective Equipment
Some of the hazards we face are a result of the manual nature of many of our tasks. Over exertion, repetitive motion, awkward posture or position when lifting are ever present risks. Ever strain your back stacking firewood? That is a classic example of repetitive motion and awkward position. Seems there is always something sticking up from the ground, leaning against a wall, jutting out from a wall just waiting to trip us up. Splitting wood, hammering nails, digging a hole, raking leaves, moving bags of feed and mulch, unloading concrete blocks or lumber from a trailer are some other examples of tasks that bring hazards we face on a near daily basis. Identify those tasks and think of ways to reduce or eliminate the risk.
Environmental hazards are ever present on the homestead. These consist of things like heat, cold, trip hazards, and are going to vary from season to season, job to job. Are there nearby trees that may cause a hangup or interfere with felling a tree? Do you have an unrestricted escape path? How about roots, potholes, uneven ground, soft ground that could cause trips and falls? Are there extension cords, air hoses, ladders, rubbish, stacks of material on the floor? Did someone place flammable materials close to the torpedo heater or wood stove? Does gas powered equipment have adequate ventilation? Are the tools and equipment we are using on the homestead in good order and right for the job? How hot is it? How cold is it? Are you doing this for the first time and not really sure how to do it?
Gravity is another source of hazards. What goes up, will come down! Ever leave a tool on top of a ladder, move, or even just bump, the ladder, and get a hammer on the head? Gravity! Branches sometimes break off when you are felling a tree and may come straight down. Roots, stumps, cords, hoses, that excess piece of pipe you cut off and threw on the ground all make trip hazards that put gravity to work. My wife was performing the simple task of walking her employer’s dog one day when the dog decided to change direction quickly. In the blink of an eye, the resulting fall left her with a plate and screws in her left thumb and in a cast for 8 weeks. Something like that will really put a damper on your work around the homestead. Staying on your feet is pretty important.
Machinery and Equipment
Machinery and equipment are a major source of hazards for the homesteader. Tractors, excavators, backhoes, ATV’s, mowers, trucks, chainsaws, power tools are just a few of the hazards we encounter on a near daily basis. Ensure machinery and equipment is in good working order. Make sure you know how to properly use it. Know and avoid, as much as possible, pinch points and entrapment points. PTO shafts, belts, blades, chains all have a way of reaching out and grabbing people. I know, money and time can be scarce on the homestead and we often take pride in the “shade tree” engineering fixes we come up with to keep things running, but we really can’t afford to put ourselves in danger and leave our safety to luck, duct tape, zip ties, and baling wire!
Of course, you may not see all the hazards. Become accustomed to identifying hazards and you gain an awareness of the risks on the job. You are now equipped to take steps to keep from hurting yourself or someone else. Don’t let a planned work day end up with a trip to the ER! Homestead safety helps you live to build another day.
Evaluate the Risk
Does the risk put life and limb in danger? How serious is the risk? Should you eliminate, control, avoid, or accept the risk? Since it is not practical to remove all risk, we must often determine ways to minimize the risk.
Control the Risk – Eliminate, Substitute, Schedule
Review the worksite to eliminate as many risks as possible. You can eliminate risk by using proper storage to prevent stacks of lumber from falling and hitting you. A clean and orderly work site significantly reduces risk of injury. A side benefit is that you spend less time looking for things. Proper tools and safety equipment eliminate many hazards. Use a hammer, not a wrench or piece of pipe if you need to pound something. Use a pry bar, not a screwdriver when you need to pry at something.
We often have to modify or create tools to get the job done. Other times have to be creative with the tools at hand. That may be reality, but consider what you are doing and if it is the best way to be doing it. And, believe it or not, PPE isn’t just something you are required to wear at work because big brother is watching you. Wearing PPE can be a life saver on the homestead as well.
Substitute risk by replacing heavy tools with lighter tools if possible. Don’t use a 5 lb sledge when a framing hammer may be better for the job. Replace manual tools with power tools when you can. A cordless drill or cordless screwdriver sure beats a hand screwdriver if you have a lot of screws to install. Cordless impact wrenches are much better for removing lug nuts than the old fashioned lug wrench. A vibration reducing hammer leaves your hand feeling better at the end of the day, and a pneumatic nail gun can be a real godsend.
When moving to heavy items, use mechanical lifting aids. This could be something as simple as a small crane that bolts to the bed of your truck or fastened to a tractor 3 point hitch. Another possibility on the homestead is a gin pole hoist. Check this link out to see how to build a gin hoist: Gin Pole Hoist Saw horses and an adjustable work table are some of my favorite items because they keep me from having to kneel and stoop when I’m working on a project. I can get down fairly easily. Getting back up kicks my tail!
Schedule your work to reduce risk. If it is going to be hot, try to schedule the heavy work early in the day before it heats up. Waiting until you are worn out at the end of the day to perform difficult tasks is asking for trouble. Fatigue makes you more prone to injury and also makes you less attentive to risk. It just seems to be human nature to let our guard down when we are almost done or almost home. Inattention and familiarity with a task also cause people to lose focus and place homestead safety at risk.
Personal Protective Equipment
I have to wear several items of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) at work, and in my role as a supervisor I have to make sure people are wearing the proper PPE, and wearing it properly. Yes, it isn’t always comfortable, and yes it is sometimes overkill. But if it keeps me from getting stitches, wearing a cast, or worse, then I’ll wear it. Some PPE we don without even thinking about it. The list below certainly isn’t all inclusive, but it contains items that I use on the homestead to keep myself safe.
- Safety glasses – you only have one set of eyes and you need to protect them. I have 2 pair of safety glasses in my tool bag, one clear and one tinted. One of the first things I do when I start working is put them on. They have stopped embers from the burn pile, dirt and gravel from working under the truck, wood chips from the chainsaw, debris from the grinder, and even a nail that I hit with a bad blow. They are cheap protection from an expensive, painful, and debilitating eye injury. Safety glasses are available at building supply, hardware, and big box stores for $5-10 a pair.
- Hearing protection – Whether is is running a chainsaw, using a grinder, table saw, or popping off a few rounds with my favorite rifle, I use hearing protection. Hearing loss creeps up on you slowly, and you may not realize it until you can’t hear your spouse or your grandkids. As is the case with safety glasses, hearing protection isn’t expensive, especially compared to the cost of hearing aids. Our local big box store has earplugs for under $3 a pair. Ear muff style are available for $15 and up, and they reduce sound levels more than earplugs.
- Gloves – protecting the hands is really important to the homesteader because they are perhaps our most important tools. Gloves prevent all kinds of cuts, scrapes, pokes, and even exposure to things like poison ivy. There is a caveat though – if you are using machines like a drill press, lathe, or band saw, gloves can be dangerous. If they get caught you will be pulled right into the equipment. I worked with a guy who was missing the first two joints of his right index finger because his glove got snagged by the drill bit in a drill press. The damage was so severe they couldn’t save it. One of the guys I used to supervise had his thumb amputated when his glove was snagged by a horizontal band saw blade. Fortunately the doctor was able to reattach it. Gloves can be had for under $5 a pair up to whatever you feel like spending.
- Hard hat – Gravity likes to bring things down on our heads. Hard hats are used by loggers, construction workers, and skilled trades people on a daily basis. They can be hot and uncomfortable, but I’ve had my noggin saved more than once by a hard hat. And, I have suffered a nasty bump on the head when I wasn’t wearing a hard hat while cutting down small trees and had one come down at a strange angle and bounce off my head. Hardhats are available on Amazon for under $15. Of course, you can also buy one to show your support for your favorite sports team or motorcycle brand and spend a ton of money.
- Face shield – when using a grinder, working on your back under something, or hammering on something that could break (brick or stone work), wearing a face shield can prevent injury to the eyes and face. Clear and tinted face shields are available, and there are special mesh face shields made specifically for use with a chainsaw. Clear face shields start around $30, and the mesh face shields for chainsaw work start under $30.
- Knee and elbow pads – If the job requires kneeling or supporting yourself on your elbows, these pads can really save wear and tear on the joints. They are available online and about anywhere you can buy tools. They start under $10 and go up from there.
- Safety shoes/boots – I’ve been wearing steel toe boots at work for so many years that I don’t feel comfortable working without them. Yes, I have heard the argument that if something heavy falls it can crush the steel and trap your toes. That argument goes about as far with me as the one about not wearing a seat belt because it might trap you in a burning car. A good pair of leather safety shoes has protected my toes more than once, and I don’t work without them. I may go cheap on jeans and shirts, but I put a high value on a comfortable, supportive pair of boots. You can go inexpensive and still find boots that meet ANSI standards, just make sure you get a good fit and good support. Your feet will thank you. I just happened to include a link to the type of shoes I have been wearing for the past 10 years. I find something I like, I tend to stick with it.
- Fall protection – probably every homesteader in the history of homesteading has had to work from a ladder, scaffold, roof, or up in a tree. When working on a ladder, have someone hold the bottom so it doesn’t slide out from under you. Don’t try to “jump” the ladder over to get to something you can’t easily reach. Don’t lean and reach while on a ladder. If you are working from scaffolding or some type of lift equipment, spend the money to buy or rent a fall protection harness. One of the guys I supervise had to go to his brother in law’s funeral a few weeks back. He was working on a scaffold in a home under construction and a co-worker brought him some material he needed. As the brother in law leaned over the rail to grab the material, he lost his balance and fell off the scaffold, landing on his head. The result was a closed head injury that required removing a piece of his skull in an attempt to relieve pressure. When he left the hospital, it was in an ambulance to a rehab facility where he died a few weeks later. Yes, fall protection is cumbersome and it isn’t something most homesteaders think about, but it can save your life. A fall protection harness with lanyard can be had for under $50. And while you are at it, anchor scaffolding if possible so that it doesn’t tip over.
- Communication – I consider good communication prior to and during a job to be a type of PPE. Communicate hazards and plans because the job is safer when everyone knows what is going on. If you are going to be in a remote location, a cell phone can be a lifeline as long as there is service. You can purchase inexpensive two way radios to use if you are going to be on the back 40.
Other Safety Items
First Aid Kit – I always keep a First Aid kit handy. You can either purchase one or make one yourself. I’ve bought several of the pre-packaged kits and generally been disappointed in the type and quality of items in the kit. While buying a kit is easy, you can make one yourself that has just what you need for your work site. Whatever you do though, you must inspect your First Aid Kit for expired or damaged, or consumed items. I keep these items in mine:
- Antiseptic Wipes
- Antibiotic Ointment
- Knuckle Bandages
- Fingertip Bandages
- Strip bandages, variety of sizes (fabric bandages are best)
- Butterfly bandages
- Gauze pads, various sizes
- Medical Adhesive Tape (I prefer the cloth type)
- Benadryl Cream
- Benadryl Tablets
- Sterile Eyewash Drops
- Hand sanitizer
- Elastic Bandage
- Safety Pins
- Bandana or triangular bandage
- Poison Ivy Spray (Technu is great stuff. I’m HIGHLY allergic and it works great for me)
- Medical Gloves (Nitrile is best)
Fire Extinguisher – Activities like cutting re-bar with an angle grinder, welding, using power tools, gas powered equipment, and using extension cords can result in sparks that can start a fire. Many a fire has been started by the heat from a car exhaust idling over tall grass. Having a fire extinguisher handy could prevent the loss of all your hard work.
Weld Blanket/Weld Curtain – Use a weld blanket when welding or grinding to cover flammable items and keep sparks and hot metal off them. Don’t use a tarp thinking it is just as good. It isn’t! If you are welding and there are other people working nearby, a weld curtain will prevent flash burns to their eyes and skin.
First Aid/CPR Training – I’ve been CPR and First Aid trained since back in my Boy Scout days. To date I haven’t had to use CPR, but I have used what I learned in First Aid training several times. It isn’t expensive, and it can be a life saver. I’m a Maintenance Supervisor so my company provides training every 2 years. If training isn’t available through an employer, contact American Red Cross or American Heart Association near you to find out what training is available. I’ve included links to both so that let you find training available near you.
Homestead safety when working alone is something you really must think about. There is nobody there to see what happened, and nobody there to come to your aid. Not only are you responsible for you, but those who will be affected by you being injured, or worse. Keep a First Aid kit on hand. Have an emergency plan in place. Let somebody know where you will be working and when you plan on leaving so they will know where to look for you if the worst happens. If you are in an area with cell phone service, keep it handy. Evaluate risks and make a plan on how to deal with the risk, and what to do if it all goes wrong.
Working alone brings its own challenges with lifting and moving items. I’ve had to move many a 400 lb oak or hickory log with a peavey hook and come along. It is tough, back breaking, exhausting work. Sometimes we don’t have a choice on the homestead, but we can make good choices to reduce the risk of it all going bad. Getting a challenging job finished brings its own rewards.
Working with Helpers
Sometimes working with a helper can be more exasperating than working alone. First there is the whole effective communication issue so you are all working together. Then there is the burden of knowing that another person’s safety is in your hands. You owe it to your helper to be safe and keep them from harm, and your helper needs to feel the same responsibility toward you. There are several things I do to try to keep my helper safe – especially since that helper is usually my wife!
- Make sure they understand what you are trying to accomplish.
- Confirm that they understand the process.
- Have them check their working area for hazards. Look for things like low branches, tree roots, rocks, cords, hoses, fences, dogs, etc. that might cause a fall.
- Check for a clear escape route. For example, when we cut down trees, I make sure that we both have separate escape routes and that there are no obstructions. Often that means removing fallen logs or branches and clearing out some undergrowth. Don’t wait for a tree to fall the wrong way to decide what to do. Too late!
- Know where the first aid kit is located, what is in it, and how to use it.
- Location, location, location. Often our homesteads don’t have a convenient 911 address, especially when just starting construction. It is important that you and your helpers know how to direct emergency services to your location.
- Be patient. Frustration leads to lack of attention. Lack of attention is dangerous.
- Be rested. Many injuries result from physical and mental fatigue. Sometimes you’ve got to take a break, catch your breath, and recharge.
Review Risk and Homestead Safety Measures
Take a look at the safety precautions you use. Keep what works and be willing to change what isn’t working. You may have always done something unsafe and not been injured. Don’t leave your safety to dumb luck. Take a few minutes to look around and make sure your work space is as safe as possible, and you are aware of hazards.
Final Thoughts on Homestead Safety
Homestead safety isn’t something to leave to chance. Take a look at the risks. Eliminate and control those that you are able. Accept and plan for those that you can’t. Be aware of your surroundings. Take care of your equipment and keep it in good working order. Use the right tool for the job. Use protective equipment to prevent injury. When you have done those things, you can get about your work without the nagging worry in the back of your mind that this may be the day it all goes wrong.
Now, get out there and build your homestead!