Top 5 Hazards in Sheep Shearing
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When we think of shearing, we all know it’s hard, physical work – whether you’re a shearer, shed hand, classer, or penner.
In researching this article, it was difficult to find any real data about shearing injuries. Data usually comes from claims – insurance, workers’ compensation, or litigation. The absence of such data is probably due to many involved in shearing working as independent contractors, so they are less likely to make such claims. Even so, it’s widely understood the main types of injuries are:
- back, knee, shoulder, arm and hand injuries
- slips, trips and falls
- cuts and bruising
- crush and foot injuries
- noise exposure
- chemicals, vapours, fumes and dust exposure
Add to this the recent risk of COVID-19 and the shearing shed certainly presents its challenges.
Whether the crew are your employees or contractors, you still have the same duty to ensure a safe workplace. There are so many hazards associated with sheep shearing, it’s hard to work out what’s the Top 5. So, let’s break it down to the 5 key components of sheep shearing and look at them in a bit more detail and find ways to make the season a bit safer.
The shearing shed
Given the shearing shed is where the action happens, it makes sense to ensure it’s ready to go and you’ve dealt with any problems before shearing starts.
Make sure there is good access to the shed and there’s room to move around. Overcrowded sheds aren’t good for anyone – whether it’s on the shearing board or the main floor. Keep plenty of space around stands, allowing for left-handed shearers, and in the wool room so classers and rollers have room to work.
Keep trip hazards out of the work area, elsewhere, make sure there is a clear path to move. There needs to be space for people to be able to throw, skirt, roll, class and store wool so a clearance of at least 1m around wool tables and 2m between the table and any machines is recommended.
Raised boards, entry stairs and other levels which are 1m or higher need to have protection to stop people falling. Railings are the best way to prevent a fall. Make sure steps have nonslip tread and are wide enough.
Having a secure fixing point for a shearers’ back harness above the board essential. It needs to be clear of the overhead shaft and within reach when standing on the floor. The harness and its mounting must be clear of any electrical wiring, leads or installation.
While the physical work in a sheep shearing shed is most likely to cause injury, coming in contact with machinery can cause more serious injuries. Recently there is the case of a female shed hand whose hair got caught in an overhead shaft and she was scalped. Ouch is an understatement, right? It is imperative that contact with overhead shafts is prevented, and if the shaft is high enough to avoid contact with raised arms, or guarding is in place, there is a good chance of no one being injured.
Ensuring downtube parts are in good condition and correctly installed is important. The wrong spring tension can cause wrist or arm strain and worn parts can cause vibration as well as overheating issues. Of course, joint guards must be fitted to all joints. Shearing handpieces can become jammed on all kinds of things so ensuring the safety clutch is properly adjusted and in good condition will help avoid injury to shearers.
The on-off ropes need to be well positioned to prevent twisting and stretching of the shearers’ back. If they are in the wrong position, a shearer may have to struggle with a sheep as well as trying to grab for the rope. Shearing handpieces which are not well looked after can vibrate, heat up, cut poorly, and put more strain on a shearer.
Before shearing commences, check all electrical leads and cables to ensure they are in good condition and are positioned to avoid any chance of them being cut or damaged as shearing progresses. Suspend electrical cables above equipment or work areas to reduce the risk of anyone coming in contact with it.
Wool presses can cause serious injuries and fatalities. It is very easy for body parts to become trapped. Presses should be fitted with a functioning interlock door, and a trip bar or emergency stop at knee height as well. Hydraulic lines must be checked before use, and a failsafe system must be provided to prevent the platen from falling when it is in the top position. Moving parts including belts, flywheels, cranking points, drive shafts, pulleys etc. must be adequately guarded. If guards are not in place, the machinery must not be used.
A working sheep shearing shed is pretty noisy. The noise produced by the shearing machinery, wool presses, grinders, engines, motors, and hydraulic pumps is enough to potentially damage hearing. Adding a radio or other music source further compromises audio safety. Being able to hear warning signals and communications with others is necessary. Wearing hearing protection is great, as long as they are comfortable and don’t compromise safety or communication.
Ok so you’ve done everything to make the shearing workplace as safe as you can. Now let’s look at the work itself, as there is always going to be hazards associated with working with live animals.
Starting with penning up, there is risk of injury from slips, trips and falls, being hit by a sheep, fingers getting crushed, cuts from sharp or protruding objects (the ones you didn’t fix before), and even dog bites. Good pen design to promote stock flow and reduce the need to ‘push’ sheep into the filling pen will help reduce the risks.
Sheep shearing is physical, no doubt about it. Catching the next sheep, flipping it and dragging it to the board is just the start. Most shearers use suspension back harnesses which decreases the load on their back and spine and reduces muscle strain as they work. Sheep are increasing in body and fleece weight which adds to the overall effort to manoeuvre the animal during shearing or crutching. Let-go chutes may not be big enough for larger animals to exit safely so might need altering.
And of course, out of control sheep present significant risks to shearers and shed hands. When shearing rams, plan this with others to have someone nearby to help if the ram breaks free – whether that is turning equipment off or assisting with catching the runaway. Wet sheep need to be left to dry out before shearing. Shearing wet sheep increases the risk of infections and other physical ailments for shearers.
Working in the heat and cold
Shearing is physically hard work – really hard work. Do that in a hot tin shed and you have serious risk to the health. Or working in winter and having cold winds blasting on shearers backs can result in all kinds of aches and pains over and above the usual.
It’s vital that when working in the heat that all workers maintain fluid levels. Dehydration is a result of sweating and can lead to things like heat stroke. Make sure everyone drinks plenty of water or juice on a regular basis, not just when they feel thirsty as this can often be too late. At least 250ml (1 cup) before and after each run, and if possible small drinks during the run can significantly reduce the risk of dehydration or heat related illness. Heat stroke can be life-threatening if not treated immediately. Make sure everyone knows to watch for signs of heat related illness such as fatigue, dizziness, irritability, inattention, muscle cramps and people making silly mistakes. If someone was sweating then seems to stop, this is a sign of danger.
Working with cold winds blowing in can be reduced by putting covers over openings, such as let-go chutes. Clear plastic blinds, like you see in cool room doorways, can reduce the amount of cold air blowing in.
Personal hygiene and the pandemic
With COVID-19, farms and shearing sheds are not immune from the risks of infection. It is the responsibility of all workers and woolgrowers to ensure protocols are followed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 affecting the workplace.
Social distancing can be a challenge in a shed. Consider using every second shearing stand to help keep 1.5m between shearers. Shed hands should wait until the shearer is in the catching pen before picking up the fleece.
If accommodation is provided for the shearing crew, ensure there is only one person per room. If necessary, set up additional sleeping areas in other buildings to allow distancing. Consider meal and rest areas to ensure people can maintain 1.5m distance from others.
All people in the shed must wash their hands with soap and water before and after eating, and after using the toilet. Make sure there is running water available for this, not basins or buckets. Ensuring there is sufficient alcohol-based hand sanitiser will help. Shed staff should provide their own soap, towels, cups, and water bottles. Providing their own storage bags or tubs for their gear is also wise.
Communicating with staff daily is crucial to ensuring the safety and welfare of all persons is put above all else, including productivity and costs.
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Originally published 14 July, 2022.