Zenchiku Land and Cattle likes to play it safe. Since implementing an on-ranch safety program, their safeguards have paid off handsomely. In fact, they've cut workers' compensation rates from 19% of their wage base to just over 7%, says John Morse, the ranch's manager. But an even bigger plus, he adds, is that employees aren't getting hurt.

The Dillon, MT, ranch supports 6,000 head of cattle in addition to 13 full-time employees and an extra seven to eight seasonal workers.

Agriculture is the third most hazardous industry in the U.S. and accounts for one out of every five fatal accidents occurring in the work world.

"Our goal," says Morse, "is not to have any lost time or wages from an accident. Fortunately, we haven't had a lost time accident in five to six years."

Although running quarterly safety meetings wasn't a big hit at first, it's taken off for Zenchiku now.

"We meet and talk about ways to stay safe, especially before any major activity, like harvest, farming, handling vaccines at processing or moving cattle in icy conditions," Morse explains. "We try to make everyone responsible. Employees now look out for each other. It's turned out to be a wonderful program."

Safety Program Grows Zenchiku originally started its safety program with help from the Montana State Fund, a statewide program that administers workers' comp. The ranch's safety record, along with other large ranchers in the state that followed a safety program, got the Montana Stockgrowers' Association (MSGA) interested in getting in on the action. They wanted to help members lower workers' comp costs, too.

So, MSGA surveyed its membership and found that of the top 12 concerns of ranchers, workers' comp ranked third. That was significant and led them to hire Les Graham, Belgrade, MT, as safety coordinator. His charge was to put together an official safety program that met the requirements of the Montana State Fund, then help conduct safety seminars throughout the state.

The program was fashioned in large part after the safety practices already in force at the Zenchiku ranch.

By following safety procedures, ranchers could qualify for up to an 8% discount on workers' compensation premiums, Graham explains, but ranchers must meet three basic criteria.

* You must be a member in good standing of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

* You must carry workers' compensation coverage with the Montana State Fund.

* You must be willing to attend a MSGA-sponsored farm/ranch safety seminar.

Setting Up Seminars "Before I started I read everything I could get my hands on about safety. The thrust was to find out what types of accidents were happening, what were the most common and then use those facts to design a safety seminar," says Graham.

"Our seminars never last more than two hours," Graham says. "We talk about issues like: What causes accidents in a shop, how to use tractors and heavy equipment, how to safely operate ATVs, how to handle chemicals and how to stay safe around livestock.

"We also cover the value of early return to work for an injured employee, how to report accidents properly and the type of things the State Fund requires," he adds.

The 1993 Montana Safety Culture Act provides a framework for Graham to outline safety procedures. It defines six requirements along with recommendations from the Department of Labor and Industry that he uses in his seminars.

1. Provide each new employee with a general safety orientation containing information common to all employees and appropriate to the business operations, before they begin their regular job duties.

2. Provide job or task-specified safety training appropriate for employees before they perform that job or task without direct supervision.

3. Offer continuing regular, refresher safety training.

4. Provide a system for the employer and their employees to develop an awareness and appreciation of safety through tools such as newsletters, periodic safety meetings, posters and safety incentive programs.

5. Provide periodic self-inspection for hazard assessment when the safety program is implemented, new worksites are established, and thereafter as is appropriate to the business operations - but at least annually.

6. Include documentation of performance of activities which must be kept by the employer for three years.

Is Workers' Comp Mandatory? The biggest question Graham gets asked is whether or not a producer needs workers' comp, especially if they hire only one person on a seasonal basis. "Yes, you do," Graham says. "Even if you only hire a kid for two months in the summer, you're required by Montana law to have workers' comp on him. But, if you're strictly a family unit, you don't need any. There's also an exemption for independent contractors."

In a rather unusual case, Graham says a Montana rancher got hurt - nothing serious, just an arm injury. When an employee discovered the ranch didn't have an official safety program, he sued the rancher for negligence.

Graham says producers can get workers' comp through private insurers or by self-insuring. Going with the Montana State Fund is not the only source. However, he points out, "if you're insured throught the State Fund and don't have an official safety policy or program, they could audit you and raise your rates. A safety policy can be as simple as one page or one paragraph. It doesn't have to be elaborate."

So far, about 900 producers have gone through the safey programs. "About 10 percent of those people have no connection to workers' comp at all, they just want to know more about safety."