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Safety Tips for Open Air Manure Storage

Livestock operations that pool animal waste in open air manure lagoons need to carefully manage risks to keep workers, livestock and visitors safe. Manure lagoons are outdoor ponds or circular holding areas that differ from manure storage containment pits which typically reside directly below indoor livestock pens. Although manure lagoons share many features with slatted floor manure storage systems — or other types of in-barn manure collection systems — the safety tips included below pertain to manure lagoons and open air manure storage structures specifically. Take some time and review these important open air manure storage safety tips and then review these points with your employees.

What Safety Measures Can Be Taken to Reduce Manure Storage Risks?

Similar to grain bin safety protocols, working in and around manure storage lagoons needs to be a team effort. Because lives are literally at risk if something should go wrong, a trained spotter should always test environmental air quality with a calibrated air monitor and they should always accompany workers, spotting from a safe distance. Proper Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) should be on hand and used each and every time your air quality monitor indicates dangerous conditions are present. Here are a few suggestions to help reduce the risks around open air lagoons:

A rescue-trained spotter should always assess air quality first. Each time that anyone will be required to access the area around or within a manure lagoon, a spotter should be deployed to test the air and observe the workers. The spotter must know how to interpret feedback from the required atmospheric gas monitor in their possession and make a decision on what PPE is necessary based on the monitor’s feedback. After correctly outfitting workers with their PPE, they should be able to inspect and safely tie-off worker safety harnesses. Additionally, they'll need to know how to safely enter the lagoon, administer first aid and rescue those that may succumb to noxious gases.

Invite first responders to train on-site. Because emergency personnel may not be trained or equipped to handle manure lagoon emergencies, put some time aside and invite them onto your property for training exercises. Be sure that all staff and rescue-trained spotters are present when this training happens, and take notes on how the safety plan should unfold. Also have PPE on hand and review best practices on fitting and using the equipment.  Take photos of key processes and make a training manual out of these materials so you can review it with new hires. Send a copy to the first responders so they can train their staff. The results of this training can shave minutes off of the first responder’s response time because they’ll know exactly where to go and what to do. And those moments saved can translate into lives spared.

Purchase or lease a calibrated air monitor. Many of the toxic gases found in a manure lagoons displace oxygen, which deprive that area of breathable air. A small investment in an ambient air monitor can help prevent serious losses. In addition to sensing toxic gases, be sure your workers know how to read oxygen levels on the monitor. Air monitors are a must-have item whenever work is being performed in or near a manure containment area.

Situational awareness is key. The spotter should also have a phone with a good signal in order to call emergency personnel. The spotter should be able to specifically describe the location and the conditions of the event — that a confined-space, air-quality emergency response is necessary.

Install multiple tie-off areas for worker’s harnesses. Invest the time and effort to ensure the manure lagoon is accessible to workers with tie off points so they can attach their lanyard when they wear a safety harness.

Have rescue PPE onsite. In addition to the required PPE for their own protection, an additional PPE set should be available in the event of an emergency.

Install a remotely-controlled agitator kill switch. A remotely-controlled kill switch for the agitator can be key in emergencies. Because manure out-gassing is highest when agitated, getting near the physically-connected off button could pose a lethal health risk after agitation — even when no air quality risk was observed earlier. When approaching the area after agitation, test air quality first and suit up with proper PPE if air quality levels mandate their use.

Choose an elevated, upwind position when locating the agitator equipment. Have workers pick an upwind spot for the agitator to improve air quality when working near these manure storage structures. When possible, select a location on a hill or elevated area because these noxious gasses are heavier than ambient air. The higher up they are, the further away the workers will be from low-lying toxic gas.

Workers should “take a breather.” Unlike the usual “work through the pain” ethic most farm employees are encouraged to take on, continuing to work when exposed to these gases can put the employee at risk for life-threatening exposure to toxic gas. Encourage them to carefully observe their well-being and take frequent breaks, especially when agitating manure. Moving to safe air, as determined by a calibrated air quality monitor, should occur at the first sign of toxic gas exposure symptoms.

What Potential Hazards and Risks Are Present in Manure Lagoons?

From the risk of being quickly overcome by toxic gases that can be fatal or render you unconscious to drowning and being unable to self-rescue, these lagoons pose eminent and frequently fatal health risks that need to be taken very seriously.  

Toxic gas exposure. The single biggest hazard that manure handlers are exposed to is to toxic gas exposure. Once unconscious and unable to move, it’s only a matter of time until the lack of oxygen results in fatalities.

Inability to self-rescue. If someone should fall into a lagoon, it can be difficult to move once they enter a manure storage area or are submerged.

Some lagoons have vertical walls. Although trench-type lagoon edges are sloped, the thick crust that accumulates on manure storage areas can make it very difficult to swim or move to safety once a worker’s submerged. On still days, toxic gasses may accumulate atop all manure lagoons.

Explosion risks. When there’s little breeze, specifically on hot and humid summer days, the stable air can collect large parcels of toxic gas which can be explosive in nature. Keep open flames out of the area and forbid workers to smoke near these containment zones.

How Does OSHA Classify Open Air Manure Lagoons?

Even though they’re titled “open air storage lagoons,” they’re classified by the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) as confined manure-handling systems. Take a look at these best practices to keep safety front and center when dealing with open lagoon manure storage systems:

Discuss the dangers with guests and family member’s kids. Guests and children should be informed of general farm safety measures and need to be told to maintain a safe distance from these structures.

Mandatory training for employees. New and returning workers should be briefed on manure handling dangers and must clearly understand the life-threatening conditions that exist in and around manure storage areas. Look online and present practical training videos on worker safety that match your operation. Training on life support equipment and rescue measures are also recommended.

Provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for workers. Get your employees trained on the proper way to fit and operate self-contained breathing apparatuses. Working in or nearby these lagoons will require a seal around the worker’s entire face since these toxic gases can irritate the eyes or burn the mucus membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth.

Install multilingual hazard signs. Post several clearly-visible warning signs around the area. These should be written in English and the native language of those working on or visiting your operation. Newly available, manure area toxic gas warning signs now graphically depict the exposure risk that workers face, and can be helpful when posted around the area.

Can a Farm Insurance Review Help Protect My Farm or Ranch?

While you’re updating your approach to managing your manure containment areas, take time to contact your American Family Insurance agent, discuss the ways you’re helping to keep your workers safe and make an appointment for a farm insurance review. Invite an agent out to your acreage and walk through your operations together. They can help you design coverage that suits your exact business needs and you’ll find real peace of mind knowing that your investments are protected.

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Related Topics: Farm Insurance , Farm Safety , Farm Succession Plan , Employee Safety , Farm and Ranch