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Safety 3: livestock handling

Course: Health and Safety | Last Updates: 7th October 2015

Every year accidents involving livestock account for a large proportion of farm fatalities, while the number of injuries incurred while handling livestock runs to nearly a thousand. Inappropriate handling facilities are often to blame.

Between April 2001 and March 2007, 22 agricultural workers were killed as a result of livestock, mostly cattle. A further 800 injuries were reported to HSE over the same period.

In addition, there are undoubtedly large numbers of minor incidents and near misses that the HSE never hears about and many serious accidents are not reported to the HSE.

For example, there have been several studies into livestock accidents and these suggest that up to 24% of livestock producers are injured every year ­ significantly, if you have had one injury you are three times more likely to have another. There is no room for complacency when working with livestock.

Livestock handling

Minimise the risk

Working with cattle will always involve some risk, but sensible health and safety is about managing risks, not eliminating them. That is why every farm that handles cattle should have a decent handling system. You may not want, or like, statutory inspections, TB tests and veterinary visits, but they are a fact of life and you are responsible for ensuring these are carried out safely and are properly planned.

To reduce the risk of injury to you, your employees as well as visitors, such as veterinarians and statutory inspectors, when handling cattle you should have:

  • Proper handling facilities, which are maintained and in good working order
  • A race and crush suitable for the animals to be handled
  • Trained and competent staff
  • A culling policy for temperamental animals.

The need for training and competence is perhaps self-evident when you consider that about 10% of the injuries quoted above occur to young people of between 16 and 18 years. Livestock skills and experience are built over time so it is important to ensure adequate supervision in the early stages to instil safe working practices from the start.

Livestock handling

HSE research indicates that about half of the injuries are due to inadequate facilities. Using makeshift or inappropriate handling equipment not only increases risk of injury to workers, but also causes distress to the animals and wastes valuable time.

Handling facilities

A good handling facility should be seen as a long-term investment to reduce labour and improve animal welfare.

Each farm has its own particular needs but there are certain features that should be considered for any handling system. It is extremely important to consider animal behaviour first and foremost.

It is often the case that a particular handling system fails or proves difficult to work because the animals behave in a seemingly irrational or difficult way. It is then little surprise to see rising tension and frustration ­ in both the stock and the stockman ­ leading to uncontrolled and, therefore, unsafe situations.

Livestock handling

Breeds and rearing systems will also have an effect on how you need to design or use a handling system. There is ample evidence to show that cattle less frequently handled are more flighty, so fence heights and strength need to account for this.

Floor surfaces need to be slip-resistant and sound ­ for both the stock and the stockmans¹ benefit. If you notice cattle slipping, even slightly, it will make them nervous and once they lose confidence in their footing it will be difficult to keep them calm.

Collecting pens, the forcing pen and race should be designed to promote cattle movement while protecting workers from crushing. Gates should be properly hung so that they can open fully against a pen wall.

Round posts are best, with hinges and other protrusions minimised, for example, either by design or covering with rubber padding. This reduces damage to the cattle as well as people.

Cattle loading

A clear run

Curved races and forcing pens with solid sides are not common in the UK but they have been shown to improve cattle flow and efficiency by up to 50% ­ this could be crucial with decreased staff numbers and one-man operations.

If you currently have a straight race it may be possible to put a bend in ahead of the crush to create the same effect. It should be possible to operate the race without entering. A cat walk and blocking gates to prevent cattle "backing up", or pushing forward will help.

It is essential that you have a gate to prevent cattle charging forward when you are working in the rear of the crush.

Cattle crushes come with many varied features and benefits. You need one that suits your particular needs.

Clipping can be a high-risk activity so is best avoided where possible by good bedding during the finishing stages. Whether clipping should be done post-slaughter is essentially a food safety issue, but this is merely placing the problem on someone else ­ and all producers would still pay for it.

Livestock handling

Cattle crush design

The provision of a crush, or sometimes lack of it, is a real problem for veterinarians who often feel morally obliged to carry out their work even in less than ideal situations.

But if a task takes longer because an animal is not properly restrained then it is worth considering just how much extra this costs ­ or the potential cost should the poor facilities cause an injury.

The crush should be secured and have a sound floor. It should be sited so there is a cattle-free working area around it. As with all mechanical equipment, regular maintenance will ensure continued safe operation of the crush and prolong its life ­ as well as yours.

You need to make sure that the yoke works freely and the locking mechanism is adjusted correctly to avoid it springing open. It is also worth looking at some form of head restraint, which greatly improves safety when performing re-tagging or sensitive veterinary work such as eye treatment.

Proprietary devices such as a scoop are available, but often a rope and quick release yacht cleat are sufficient. These can generally be retro-fitted to any crush.

Livestock handling

Mobile systems are becoming more common and are most useful for people with stock on outlying land. Look for designs that have really considered the needs of both cattle and operators. These systems offer the best option for smaller producers to co-operate with each other and spread costs.

As a final point on equipment, and one worth considering for new facilities, serious consideration should be given to the loading area. Adequate gates that can be secured to the vehicle are an absolute must and increasing the dock height lowers ramp angles improving stock access and egress.

A well designed and built handling system may seem expensive, but it will last many years. It will also save a lot of time and if you consider the business consequences of an injury to you or a worker, is cheaper than an accident. And it could save your life.

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