How did Anissa Branch and her son Dylan know that the safety culture had changed at Riddell Farms?
Instead of avoiding the meetings, employees started asking if they could attend.
The farm grows turf and forage grass seed, specialty seeds, cover crops, and hazelnuts on 4,700 acres around Monmouth. That means a lot of equipment and people on the road between the central farmhouse office and fields in all directions. Employees from all parts of the farm gather in a circle of chairs for a monthly safety meeting and staff lunch on the ground floor of the stucco farmhouse on Riddell Road.
The sandwiches are a draw, but the atmosphere is obviously part of the appeal. While a few employees are comfortably lounging on a couch and one rests his shoulder against the doorframe, others are leaned forward in their chairs. Everyone is engaged in the agenda, offering their thoughts and nodding along with reminders about seatbelt usage and updates on harvest procedures. When someone mentions their mild knee injury, it’s the other employees who speak up about jumping down from tractors and other vehicles. One shakes their finger gently, and they all agree: “We don’t do that anymore!”
The Former Normal
“Safety in the past was common sense mostly,” says Anissa Branch. “Thanks to my father’s charm we had a great relationship with our OSHA inspector, but for the most part, we discouraged outside regulations and believed they were adversarial to us.”
Things were changing with safety and OSHA, especially as the farm grew slowly over the years from five full-time employees to over twenty.
“Being a small farm was no longer a free pass from the regulations and safety requirements,” says Branch, “Our long-term employees were fairly safe but we didn’t have specific operating procedures or rules for new employees. We were also not training consistently. I am actually surprised there were not more safety issues. I knew we had been lucky”
An early attempt to enlist Kirk Lloyd of Lloyd’s Northwest LLC made for more regular meetings but no shift in the safety culture on the farm.
Around that time, two things happened: Branch began serving her term as president of Oregon Aglink and OSHA established its requirement of safety meetings for farms with fewer than ten full-time employees. With the combined efforts of Branch, Lloyd, and former Oregon Aglink executive director Geoff Horning, the first safety pod was formed. With Pearmine Farms, O. M. Cook Farms, and Wigrich Farms, the crew at Riddell Farms started a new routine.
Instead of conducting monthly meetings independently, the farms went through a quarterly cycle with a safety inspection one month, a farm meeting the next month, and a group meeting with participants from all the pod farms in the third month.
“We learned so much from each other—much more than just safety,” says Branch. By pooling their experiences, the near-miss or accident at one small farm could educate employees at all of the farms involved. Moreover, the pod meetings became a space for sharing other procedures and resources.
“It was so beneficial to hear other ideas and not live in our own bubble,” Branch emphasizes, “This all led to us being more proactive about what we specifically envisioned for our farm.”
“Our farm has never looked better or been more efficient”
Over five years in the program, there were some shifts in personnel. New staff at Oregon Aglink and Lloyd Northwest stepped in to help run meetings at the same time as Anissa Branch’s son Dylan was hired to run the day to day operations of the farm and the number of employees rose to over twenty. A new safety coordinator is now appointed every six months to run meetings and adopt a special project, whether it’s mapping fire extinguisher locations or checking every tire on the farm. With time, regular meetings at Riddell Farms felt routine and were as well-attended as the group meetings with multiple farms.
The most important shift? Employees were accountable to each other, and suggestions started coming from the bottom instead of the top.
“Our employees are now constantly thinking of new ideas on how to be safer and more efficient,” says Branch. “It’s a daily task, not just one that we think about once a month. We strive to have a continuous process of improvement that flows into all aspects of the operation.”
The benefits go beyond saving money on claims, she adds. The changes have brought “happier employees who feel valued, a more clean and organized work environment, cost savings because everyone is doing things the safe way which almost always is the best and most efficient way. Even if a safety measure takes a couple extra seconds, in the long run it saves down-time and money from accidents.”
Training as Incentive
Organization and efficiency are enviable goals on their own, but at Riddell Farms the shared trainings and refresher courses feel like treats instead of mandatory tasks for many of the employees. In fact, training is the biggest recommendation offered by Branch as a way of building skills and a sense of teamwork.
“Learning is challenging and can be fun” says Branch. “We brought a welding instructor in for a half day to refresh everyone on basic welding and safety in welding. We have a fire extinguisher company come in once a year before harvest to do a quick training. We also did a first aid/CPR course last year and now everyone on our farm is CPR certified for three years.”
“All of these are team building as well as enforcing our safety culture and spicing work up, which translates to better teamwork and productivity.”
The training brings everyone together on the same page—from the employee who has worked there for twenty-nine years to one who has only been at Riddell Farms for six months and may not have built up the same breadth of skills. The trainings also present an opportunity for staff to help each other, ask questions, and share knowledge.
Calling In, Not Calling Out
The sense of pride evident in the outward appearance of the farm is also evident during the safety meeting when everyone agrees that jumping off of vehicles is not something “we” do anymore. Corrections are made as a matter of calling people back into the group as opposed to singling someone out for their mistakes or bad behavior.
When asked what safety problems might arise and how they would be handled, employees had several suggestions. If, for instance, “an employee sees another employee using a hand grinder or loading chemicals and they aren’t wearing [personal protective equipment]” the old response might have been to avoid saying anything “or worse, shame them a bit.”
Now, Riddell Farms has flipped the script.
“If someone sees [an employee not wearing personal protective equipment], they will hold them accountable in a way that says we care about you and your safety so please wear your PPE.” Another employee agrees, “Our safety culture and general farm culture is one that really strives to build people up, and if we see or hear about another employee not using positive reinforcement of our culture, it will be addressed immediately.”
Reaping the Rewards
As the farm looks ahead toward the 2019 harvest, Dylan Branch taps his clipboard and talks about the potential safety issues ahead. One employee recently had a problem with her blood sugar dropping, and a few fellow employees had noticed her drowsiness. This leads to a conversation about fatigue and checking in with each other.
The summer months will be busy, of course, but the farm has already planned a mid-harvest safety meeting where everyone can regroup, report on their work, and recalibrate as necessary.
There are unavoidable hazards with farming in general and harvest in particular, but the attitude here is one of being proactive rather than reactive. Preparation and accident prevention can’t get in the way of the actual business of farming, but Riddell Farms sees a way to manage that balance to everyone’s benefit.
By Allison Cloo