Do you follow SOPs on your farm?

These documents can benefit employee welfare and your bottom line.

by Jackie Clark

For many industrial or manufacturing jobs, standard operating procedures (SOPs) are a valuable tool used to promote safety, efficiency and consistency, and to comply with standards or legislation. In agriculture, SOPs can be used to realize those same outcomes.

Farmers can “take some of those best practices of industry and apply them to seeding operations, calving or in the shop, without it being onerous,” says Shanyn Silinski.

Silinski grew up on a ranch in Alberta and her husband Earl Silinski manages a farm just west of Trochu, Alta.

She works as a program manager for Autism Canada and has previous experience in firefighting and federal emergency planning.

When SOPs incorporate safety considerations, they can be called safe work procedures (SWPs), Robert Gobeil, the agricultural safety and 25 health specialist at the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA), tells Better Farming.

Essentially, an SOP is “a step-by-step process to take a person through a given task from start to finish in the order of operations,” says Gobeil. An SWP “incorporates the safety components into that procedure as well.”

person in protective gear touching chemical storage
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An important “reason to develop SOPs or SWPs is legislative compliance,” he explains. “Many farmers may not be aware that it is law to have safe work procedures for hazardous job tasks.”

Better Farming connected with Silinski, Gobeil and Jennifer Wright, the senior HR adviser and stakeholder engagement specialist at the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), to understand the importance of SOPs and how producers can develop and implement them on the farm.

The experts identify three major interconnected benefits to implementing SOPs: Increased safety, improved efficiency and consistency, and simplified employee training and management.

Safety on the farm

Farmers can establish an SOP or SWP “to make sure that people do their tasks safely and go home at the end of the day the way they showed up,” says Gobeil. Incident prevention is a moral and legal responsibility and personal incentive for everyone working on the farm.

It’s important to “get people to stop celebrating the near misses,” says Silinski. “The more near misses you have, statistically, the closer you are to having something major happening.”

Hurried hustling leads to mistakes and accidents, says Gobeil.

“There’s that stereotype that safety in general slows people down; however a methodical, slow-down-to-speed-up kind of approach will pay off over time.”

Safe work has implications for whatever it is that you produce on your farm.

An SOP “contributes to safe production of food, making sure you’re meeting any biosecurity requirements that might be part of your farm’s operation,” explains Wright.

Efficiency & consistency

An SOP is “a management tool as well,” says Gobeil. “It can make you money.”

An explicit procedure helps by “making sure that tasks are being done consistently and in a standard way, regardless of whether it’s the same person doing the procedure,” Wright explains.

Silinski agrees.

“The most successful farmers you will ever meet are the ones who are the most consistent,” she says. An SOP involves “small consistent steps that lead to successful implementation and long-term efficiency.”

Standardizing operations can help you improve farm activities by identifying bottlenecks in service activities or consistent problems with equipment, she adds. Those improvements, in turn, can lead to “less downtime for repairs and fewer injuries from people not knowing what they’re doing.”

Training and management

SOPs “help support employee training,” Wright explains.

“An SOP is a great HR tool and a great management tool,” Silinski says. Using an SOP doesn’t assume that every new staff member knows how to do certain tasks and gives them a chance to ask questions.

“That SOP gives you a level of expectation that everyone can agree to, and it’s in writing. You can have people, once you train them, sign it and date it,” she explains. That process allows for employee accountability for completing job tasks properly.

How to write SOPs

To get started, identify which tasks require an SOP.

Farmers should “look at their most critical operations first. What are the things that can have the most bottom-line impact?” says Silinski. “If you do it wrong, are you going to hurt yourself or wreck something?”

Also consider “what can be mentally taxing for someone, what can be fatiguing for someone? What requires a lot of consistent attention to detail?” she adds.

To include safety components in your SOP, “you need to conduct a risk assessment,” says Gobeil. “Identify risks for that given task, identify controls to those risks, and then you incorporate those controls into the procedure.”

Producers may not have to start from scratch.

“You may be able to find some existing templates online,” Wright says. Then you can adapt them to your farm’s unique context. Otherwise, farmers can design a simple template so that SOPs have a consistent layout.

“Within that document, you state the purpose of the SOP, who is responsible or authorized to do the procedure, where on the farm it is performed, and then a detailed step-by-step method in order of how they’re performed,” Wright explains.

It may be beneficial to have employees, particularly those who do the job task in question, help write or review the SOP.

“The procedure itself should be developed with the help of co-workers – people who actually do those tasks,” says Gobeil. “When you involve the workers who actually do those tasks, it helps with getting accurate procedures, and it helps with getting worker buy-in. Employees are far more likely to comply with the procedures if they have helped develop them.”

Silinski agrees.

Involving employees “gets them invested in it because you’re telling them it’s going to make their job better and safer, and it’s also going to make the farm operations smoother,” says Silinski.

“Sometimes getting started feels intimidating,” she explains. However, “the SOP does not have to be a doctoral thesis. It can be very direct, in point form and easy to follow.”

Using your SOP

The last thing farmers need is another piece of paperwork that gets filed away, never to be used again. Wright, Gobeil and Silinski have some advice on how to effectively continue to use SOPs on the farm.

“Once a procedure is developed, you want to train your workforce,” explains Gobeil. Your staff should review or practice procedures and sign off on them “in the case of an incident, you can prove that people were trained for due diligence purposes.”

Then, producers should “make sure that SOPs are available and accessible and close to the site where that task or procedure is taking place,” Wright says.

Try to keep the document to one page, and print, laminate and post the SOP.

“That’s a good way to make it visible and make sure people are thinking about it and following it as they do the task,” she explains.

“When you can, you might want to think about having employees complete a checklist as they do the task each time.”

person in plaid shirt checking off boxes
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SOPs should be formally reviewed at least every two years, Wright adds. Producers should be “updating or reviewing whenever new protocols or regulations come into place, or when there’s a change in the equipment or the method being used.”

Gobeil agrees.

If the equipment or job task changes, be sure to update the procedure and safety information, he says. Gobeil encourages farmers to review SWPs every year, though “most provincial legislation talks about a review every three years for sure, at minimum.”

Changes and updates to SOPs or SWPs should be “communicated clearly to the employees,” Wright says.

Established protocols are useless without follow-through and enforcement.

“Ultimately, it falls on the employers’ shoulders to ensure that the procedure they created is complied with. Adequate supervision is essential,” says Gobeil.

Working to create and comply with SOPs will benefit your operation.

“Why wouldn’t you want to do better?” asks Silinski. SOPs help you “do better for your staff, your equipment, your livestock, and do better for your bottom line.” BF

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