University of Maryland Extension

Physical health and safety

Neith Little, Extension Agent, Urban Agriculture

Urban Ag home | Table of contents

 NEVER clear a jammed or clogged piece of equipment with your hand. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Figure 1: NEVER clear a jammed or clogged piece of equipment with your hand. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.

farm safety risks are very specific to individual farms. Urban farms might need to consider safety related to small-scale farm equipment, hand-tool ergonomics, heat and sun exposure, air quality, pest control products (including organic sprays!), and youth on the farm. A farm task safety audit can help you think through tasks specific to your farm, and how to reduce the risk of injury. All farms should have an emergency response plan, and include it in trainings for workers and volunteers.

Mechanized equipment used on urban farms might include small vegetable tractors, walk-behind tractors, tillers, lawn mowers, weed whips, carpentry tools, and chainsaws. There is a lot to learn about how to use these tools safely, but the most important safety tip is to take your time and take breaks as needed. Tractors and power tools are unforgiving of the mistakes that you will make when you hurry or push yourself beyond exhaustion, hunger, and heat stress. Never, ever, try to clear a jammed tiller or mower with your hand.

Tool banks or hardware stores that rent out power tools may offer safety classes for those borrowing tools. In the links at the end of this chapter, the Power Tool Institute has a great one-page safety tip sheet and Penn State Extension has guide to the most common riding tractor safety risks.

Ergonomic considerations will save you literal pain in the future. Back and shoulder injuries and chronic pain (work-related musculo-skeletal disorders) are common among farmers and farm-workers and can be disabling. But these injuries are preventable. You can practice good form and adapt tools and workstations to make lifting and carrying loads and performing repetitive physical work safer. For example, something as simple as choosing harvest totes with handles can make the tote easier to carry and reduce the risk of back injury. For more principles of ergonomics, and case studies of adaptations, see Simple solutions: Ergonomics for farm workers by Baron et al. (2001).

If you are in a leadership position on your farm, it is important that you set a good example by proactively taking care of your body and working with others to lift heavy items. You might consider adopting a restorative physical practice such as stretching, yoga, or tai chi. Strength training in the off season, particularly of the core muscles, may also help prevent back strain.

Implementing health and safety measures is wise, but certain minimum measures are required by law. Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH), a division of the Department of Labor and Licensing Regulation, sets and enforces standards for workplace safety and health. MOSH standards for agricultural work largely mirror the federal Occupational Safety & Health Act standards, which set the baseline measures to reduce and manage safety risks associated with use of heavy machinery (e.g. tractors) and also include basic requirements for hygiene and drinking facilities. Specific regulations are listed in OSHA Part 1928: Occupational Safety and Health Standards for Agriculture. See the links at the end of the chapter for this reference, as well as articles to help you understand whether you are complying with MOSH standards.

 Heat risk management guidance table from OSHA
Figure 2: Heat risk management guidance table from OSHA

Heat-exposure and sun-exposure are health risks for anyone who works outdoors. Safety precautions are necessary to reduce the risk of life-threatening illnesses such as heat stroke and skin cancer. Everyone, regardless of skin tone, can be at risk of developing skin cancer, and should take precautions to minimize sun exposure.

The risk of heat-related illnesses is increased by high humidity and inside high tunnels. Certain individuals may be at higher risk of experiencing heat-related illnesses, including older individuals, infants, and people with circulatory or heart conditions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published a chart to guide employers in managing the risk of heat-related illness. For more and up-to-date information, visit

In urban areas, air quality is an additional risk to consider when working outdoors. Air pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter vary from day to day depending on weather conditions such as wind speed and atmospheric inversions. The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) monitors air quality and offers an online Air Quality Index forecast:

When using any pesticide, even products labelled for use on organic farms, you must follow the instructions on the label. The label should include safety precautions to take.

Certain pesticides are only available for purchase to people who have undergone advanced training: these are called Restricted Use Pesticides. In Maryland, people who are allowed to purchase Restricted Use Pesticides must be certified by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Other, general use pesticides are available for sale “over the counter” so to speak. These include organic products commonly used by urban farmers, such as neem oil, Bacillus thuringiensis(BT), kaolin clay, and concentrated vinegar. These products should still be treated with respect and used according to labelled instructions. Farms or businesses that use pesticides likely will need to comply with the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). For a quick introduction to your responsibilities under the WPS, see the UMD Extension factsheet “What Farmers Need to Know about the Worker Protection Standard” by Little and Everhart (2019).

If youth are an important part of your urban agriculture work, it will be important to consider their safety, and what learning and working experiences are developmentally appropriate for their ages. Penn State Extension has a very helpful article on children and safety on the farm, with a table showing appropriate farm work tasks and safety risks to consider for different age ranges (Murphy 2014).

Keep in mind that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and other state laws impose limits on child labor, such that minors may only work outside of school hours and youths under 16 are generally limited to nonhazardous job duties. Hazard-based limitations are set by age brackets and may require prior certification or training. For more information, see Child Labor Laws in Agriculture: What You Need to Know.

Additionally, soil contamination is a risk that disproportionately affects youth. So testing for metal contaminants like lead is advised in particular for farms and gardens where youth will be visiting and working. For more on soil contamination risk management, see the Production chapter.

For the above risks, and for others more specific to your own situation, a safety audit can help identify sources of risk and ways to reduce that risk. The article linked above on youth on-farm safety has a template for one kind of safety audit, that helps the reader walk through the steps of a specific activity to identify where injuries could occur. Another kind of safety audit template is a checklist of common farm safety risks (Runyon 2009).

Proactively planning to reduce safety risks as described above is meant to prevent injuries and emergencies. But the final step in being prepared is to have an emergency response plan, and to clearly communicate that plan to visitors and as part of employee and volunteer trainings. Look back at the topics described above and consider which could result in an emergency situation at your farm or garden.

  • What would you need on hand to respond to that situation effectively?
  • What actions would you and others on your team need to take to protect people’s safety?
    For example, if you needed to direct emergency first responders to your location, do you know the street address of the location where you work?
  • Does everyone on your team know the address?
  • Is it visible from the road?

First aid training might be worth pursuing. If you want to be able to respond with first aid in an emergency situation, be sure to keep your first aid certification current and understand the duty of care that you enter into once you begin administering first aid (Williams 2017). A wilderness first aid class might be more relevant to the types of injuries and illnesses you could encounter working outdoors, such as heat stress and sprains.

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