Safe working conditions at feedlots have always been a high priority for employers, and the increasing cost of injury that impacts both workers and businesses makes it even more critical to ensure that every possible safety principle becomes a habit.
Mike Keenan, Risk Control Manager at Omaha’s Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., says even a minor injury can take a worker away from a feedlot for a full day. Their absence doesn’t just impact that individual worker’s job. It initiates a domino effect that potentially involves every worker at the site.
“Feedlots are usually located in a rural area, so it takes time to transport an injured worker to a medical facility, complete treatment, and return to work, if that’s appropriate,” Keenan says. “Nearly every business is feeling the pressure of being shorthanded. The feedlot industry is no exception. Losing a person for even one day shifts the burden of that person’s job onto at least one other employee, which can have a ripple effect across the feedlot.”
Keenan notes that feedlot workers, such as pen riders, have specialized skills and responsibilities, which means their absence adds significant pressure on co-workers to continue working effectively. Even when a feedlot employee with a minor injury returns to work, their productivity may be hindered for a time.
“Feedlot injuries are often significant, and an injured employee may not be able to return for an extended period of time, or at all,” Keenan says. “In many industries, if someone is injured, there are a number of light duties they can work at while they recuperate. That’s seldom the case at a feedlot.”
Even if an injured feedlot worker was willing to take up tasks such as office duties, they may not possess the necessary skills to make that temporary transition.
“It’s just not common on any feedlot to have that kind of temporary or light work,” Keenan says. “The reality of feedlot injuries is that an injured worker is often fairly limited in what they can do until they’re fully recovered.”
Because of the large number of animals at a feedlot and the high percentage of physical labor involved in feedlot work, feedlot worker injuries tend to be significant. The 2019 U. S. Bureau of Labor statistics also show that feedlot workers are exposed to a higher risk of injury compared to all private industry.
In 2019, the average reportable Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) incidents for industry in general was 2.8 per 100 employees. For feedlots, that reportable incident average was 5.3 per 100 employees, nearly twice as high.
Those same comparisons hold true for OSHA’s DART Rate data. DART is the acronym for Days Away, Restricted, or Transferred. It’s one of the metrics OSHA uses to measure impacts of workplace injuries. The DART rate tracks any worker who suffered a workplace injury or illness that caused them to cease working in the normal capacity. This includes anyone who:
• Ceases to work
• Restricts their work activities
• Is transferred to a different department or job
“In all private industry, the DART rate averaged 1.5 employees,” Keenan says. “In the feedlot industry that rate is 2.8.”
In 2019, workers in the beef industry, which includes feedlots and some ranches, suffered 58 fatal work injuries, a significantly high number.
Keenan notes that feedlot workers often possess resilient physical characteristics which may prompt them to return to work before they fully recover.
“This characteristic may or may not be an asset,” Keenan says. “If we work when we shouldn’t, we may exacerbate an injury.”
Because every industry is feeling the pressure of small labor pools, losing a feedlot worker due to injury may have an even greater negative impact on an individual business.
“Every employer knows when a worker is forced to make up for the shortage of another employee, things can go badly,” Keenan says. “That’s especially true in the feedlot during busy times of the year when workers put in long days. As seasons change, daylight hours shrink, and workers spend part of the day working in reduced light or darkness.”
Even when a feedlot employer is able to hire a replacement, that individual is likely to require significant training time. If the injured worker was a longtime employee, a new hire may never attain the same level of knowledge and skill.
“Those longtime feedlot workers have things in their head that have never been written down anywhere,” Keenan says. “When a new hire comes in, someone has to train them. That means at least one employee takes on that burden in addition to their job for an extended period of time.”
Because many of today’s feedlot workers come to the job without having a background of working with or around livestock, the learning curve is often very steep. The ability to read animals (cattle and horses) is often innate and not easily learned.
“Those qualities are more and more rare as rural populations decline,” Keenan says. “And a lack of them can put a worker at higher risk for injury.
Feedlot industry data indicates that the cost of work-related injury and death average $1,100 per worker (a one-time cost). For all U.S. workers, the cost of a work-related death is $1.22 million.
“The cost of any injury goes beyond the insurance and medical cost,” Keenan says. “Regardless of how minor it is, injury involves loss of productivity in the workplace, administrative expenses and economic impact for the worker’s family.”
The National Safety Council says the cost of a current medically consulted injury averages $42,000.
“And that may be just the tip of the iceberg,” Keenan says. “A pen rider’s fractured arm may mean that they can never return to that kind of work. It could mean a lifelong disability. If someone isn’t able to return to the work they were doing, the employer may need to invest in retraining them.”
Keenan experienced a case where a pen rider wasn’t interested in being retrained, even though the option was available to him. He wanted to continue in his work. However, his employer couldn’t justify the potential cost of another injury if he continued in that job.
Other costs related to unsafe work practices and/or high injury rates include increased insurance premiums OSHA fines. Serious violations currently cost as much as $14,000 per infraction. If an injury event requires an OSHA investigation, the company must provide a manager to work with the OSHA investigator for the duration of the inspection.
“Few people realize how time consuming that kind of investigation can be,” Keenan says. “It’s far easier to make sure workers and the work environment are in compliance with OSHA regulations.”
Slips, trips, and falls are commonly involved in feedlot injury reports. When workers are out in rain, ice, and snow, it’s not unusual for risk of these injuries to be high.
“Equipment maintenance is frequently involved in these kinds of injuries, too,” Keenan says. “If the bottom step of an implement is damaged, it can be easy to avoid repairing it, until someone is injured because of it.”
Horseback injuries resulting from an animal charging a horse or a horse bucking off a rider are also common.
“One area that’s not frequent but is very traumatic if it occurs is equipment runover,” Keenan says. “It’s common for feedlot workers to be out early in the morning or work into the evening. In my experience, 25 percent of the fatalities our office has dealt with involved equipment runovers.”
Keenan advises feedlot managers to seek a safety mindset that encompasses every aspect of their business. Small changes, such as sliding gates rather than swinging gates, can significantly reduce injury potential across the work site.
“Wearing high visibility clothing and improving lighting will reduce runover potential,” Keenan says. “Train employees in how to eliminate muscle strain, which is another area frequently related to feedlot injuries. Make sure workers regularly follow up on repairs for facilities and equipment. Don’t wait until someone gets hurt before you do something about a needed repair.
“There are fewer people all the time who have a livestock background,” Keenan adds. “Skilled feedlot employees are valuable, especially in a worker shortage environment. Know how to keep employees safe, implement safe practices and enforce them.”