Milk smarter - not just harder

Over the past year I have taught a lot of safety programs for dairy farmers in Minnesota. One of the topics included is injury as a result of repetitive motions. One usually thinks of this type injury in a factory setting where someone is doing the same task time after time, hour after hour, day after day. Well, what is the most repetitive task found on every dairy farm that doesn't have robotic milkers? Milking the cows!

By Chuck Schwartau, Extension Educator, University of Minnesota Extension

Older dairy farmers can relate to knee problems from kneeling next to cows in stall barns, but milking in parlors has its own set of hazards in place of the knees, especially on larger farms.

It is not at all uncommon for farms to have 4 to 6 hour milking shifts today, and larger farms are often milking 24 hours a day with only short breaks to clean the equipment and change shifts. Parlors are typically built for milking staff of some 'average' height. I'm not sure if anyone knows what that average height is, so we can assume an awful lot of milking staff are shorter or taller making the work site less than idea for them. If the staff member is tall, they may find themselves stooping more to properly see the udder or attach the milking equipment. If the person is short, they find themselves reaching excessively to perform those same tasks. They may be handling a relatively heavy load at arm's length, creating extra stress on their backs, shoulders and arms. The constant manipulations by the hands may also increase the likelihood of carpal tunnel problems.

While employers must be concerned about discrimination issues when hiring, a part of the job description should be that employees are physically capable of safely performing the task with reasonable accommodation. There have been barns built with parlor pit floors that can be adjusted up and down to meet the needs of taller and shorter workers. Some farms have installed platforms to accommodate short milking staff. Sometimes you just need to ask whether than can really perform the task up to expectations and do so safely for themselves and others around them. In the end, if an employee experiences work related injuries from repetitive motions and working conditions, it is your workers' compensation insurance that will be paying, and your premiums that will be increasing.

DairyNZ (New Zealand's dairy extension program) offers these suggestions for making your parlor a safer place to work.

Shorten milking times – Make sure your milking routine is conducive to keeping the total time in the parlor as short as possible. This may only be practical if your parlor capacity might make a shorter time possible.

Create and rotate rosters – Standing on concrete for long hours and not moving very far put extra stress on the feet, legs and back. If there is an opportunity for some job rotation among staff every few hours, the change in routine and work can be beneficial. Even though they might still be on hard floors while moving cows, for example, the extra walking and break from the constant reaching can be beneficial.

Wear good boots – Insist that your staff wear good boots if they are going to be standing and working long hours on hard floors. A cheap 'barn boot' might keep the feet dry, but most of them don't offer much cushion to the bottom of the foot or support to the arch. Maybe you need to suggest your employees buy good shoes with adequate supports and wear a lightweight, waterproof rubber boot over them. An incentive could be the employer paying toward shoes and/or boots that will meet those criteria.

Install cushioned matting in the pit floors – A relatively cheap rubber mat under foot can make a big difference in how one feels standing in the parlor all day. Long hours on hard surfaces are extremely hard on feet and legs, plus many people will feel extra stress in the lower back. A simple mat can reduce that fatigue a great deal. Look for mats that are easy to clean as well as offering some cushion. Your milk inspector might be able to offer suggestions so what you install will meet their expectations for sanitation as well.

The milking staff is an extremely important cog in your dairy business. They are the ones harvesting your crop two or three times every day. You wouldn't dream of putting an untrained, ill-prepared and ill-equipped person up in your $400,000 combine for a few days in the fall. Why would you want to do any less for those people who perform a similar harvest task for you every day of the year?

Milk a bit smarter. Set up your parlor for milker safety and comfort and you will have more productive and healthier employees.

By Chuck Schwartau, Extension Educator, University of Minnesota Extension