If you’re a homesteader or you have homesteading friends or family, you’ll almost inevitably come across some injuries. Between livestock handling, DIY projects, moving materials, heavy machinery, and gardening, you’re lucky to go a week without some type of mishap. While we’ve all heard horror stories involving large farm equipment or an ornery bull, there are plenty of bumps and bruises that can occur during everyday chores. With the myriad hazards of country life, a little knowledge of first aid on the homestead can go a long way.
While I have a medical background for both animals and humans, my partner and I have a “less is more” approach to any farmyard injuries while also making sure we prevent further harm or infections. While we cannot predict when or how we are going to get hurt, the next best thing is having a first aid kit set up that is geared towards homesteaders.
Your run-of-the-mill first-aid kits can be bought online, from pharmacies, and even sporting goods or home-improvement stores. They typically contain antiseptic, disposable gloves, ice packs, gauze, tape, tourniquet, aspirin, sterile bandaging, tweezers, survival blankets, hydrocortisone ointment, bandage shears, and alcohol wipes.
While this is a good kit for the general public, adding a few more important items would customize it for first aid on the homestead:
- Sterile saline for wound cleaning and eye irrigation for accidents involving chemicals or foreign materials (wood dust, hay, metal shavings, etc.)
- Hand wipes for when water and soap for handwashing are unavailable.
- Large clean cloth and safety pins to make a sling.
- Sugar or small candies for diabetics battling a drop in glucose levels. Do not use chocolate or nuts.
- Heavy blanket for ground coverage or to transport someone who is unable to move.
- Sealable small and large plastic bags as well as garbage bags with ties for digit or limb amputation.
- Flares and flashlights for when injuries happen out in the woods or a large field.
- Splinting materials for broken bones.
- A pocket mask for resuscitation.
Many public schools and fire departments offer CPR and BLS classes. I highly recommend taking them yourself and encouraging anyone else who works on the farm with you to participate. The more people around who are educated and prepared, the better outcome for anyone who happens to get hurt.
Whether an accident/injury happens to you or someone else, the most important thing to do is to stay calm and not panic. It can be very unsettling and uncomfortable to experience, or simply witness, an injury of any kind, but being on the homestead gives it a more visceral feeling. Being in the field, back in the woods, working with animals, and/or using heavy and dangerous equipment tends to amp up the urgency of receiving first aid. In most cases, acting quickly and efficiently is necessary to improve the outcome, but a panicked and frantic mindset is not helpful.
Injuries including major bleeding, broken bones, loss of a limb or digit, head trauma, or unconsciousness need to be addressed immediately. Call 911 and direct the dispatcher to where the injured party is located. If you don’t have cell phone service or Wi-Fi but you have another person near/with you, send them for help while you wait with the injured party. People suffering from shock need to be kept warm with their legs and feet slightly elevated (unless it causes discomfort); major bleeding requires a tourniquet applied tightly above the wound; broken bones need to be stabilized for transport. The more efficiently and quickly these practices can be applied, the better. That is why it is called “first aid”, you are the first line of help, whether it’s for yourself or someone else.
While we all dread and fear major farm injuries, knowing basic life-saving techniques and first aid can help in any situation, regardless of the severity.
Less emergent injuries include animal bites, kicks and scratches, lacerations, burns, punctures, sprains, and your usual bumps and bruises. Basic first aid kit supplies will be very effective in treating any of these moderately minor injuries. Any puncturing of the skin is a break in your body’s biggest defense mechanism, therefore introducing bacteria. An antiseptic such as Hibiclens, peroxide, betadine/iodine, Bactine, or isopropyl alcohol can be applied immediately or after the area is washed with water and antibacterial soap. It is a good idea to check on the status of your Tetanus vaccination or have an updated booster for these types of injuries as farm work is typically pretty dirty.
First Aid on the Homestead: Burns
Whether a burn occurs from chemical exposure, the sun, heavy machinery, friction, fuel, or an open flame, it needs to be treated quickly. A burn can continue to cause damage even after the initial injury has taken place. Taking proper safety precautions before engaging in an activity that could involve a burn is priority number one and is your best bet for avoiding an accident.
If you’re going to be burning a brush pile, make sure you have a face covering to prevent volatile inhalants from being breathed in and potentially burning your face/airway. Before using any chemicals like pesticides or fungicides, check the manufacturer’s MSDS (Medical Safety Data Sheet) for recommended protective equipment and safe handling instructions.
In most cases of chemical burns, the first step is removing the chemical from your skin by lightly brushing it away. Do not wipe as this could cause further damage. Next, the affected clothing must be removed carefully. If you can remove it without exposing unaffected skin to the chemical, then do so quickly but cautiously. If this isn’t possible, donning gloves and using bandage scissors to remove the clothing is the next best thing. Rinse the area with cool water for at least 30 minutes provided the MSDS does not specify otherwise.
Some chemicals react adversely to water, such as sulfuric acid, metal compounds, and phenol. Most chemical burns should be seen by a doctor or burn center shortly after the accident, if not immediately. They will be able to prevent further burn damage and treat it accordingly with medications, ointments, and bandaging.
First Aid on the Homestead: Bumps, Bruises, and Sprains
We’ve all been there; walking through the duck pen, jumping over a stream, gardening, hopping into a truck bed, checking on a pig in a mucky pen and it happens, you whack into a fence, hit your shin on a piece of farm equipment, slip on a pile of duck mess, step on a rock and roll your ankle.
While these mishaps seem minor (and sometimes embarrassing), it’s still a good idea to treat them in a timely fashion. A sprain or bruise can sometimes swell and make getting around uncomfortable. Ice is your best friend in the immediate treatment and will help bring down swelling as well as offer some pain relief. Always use a cloth when applying something cold to the skin to prevent possible frostbite.
Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) are best for sprains, which can sometimes take a few weeks to heal completely. In some cases, a visit to the doctor may be in order if you need further stabilization with the help of a brace or wrap.
First Aid on the Homestead: Animal-related Mishaps
Accidents and injuries involving farm animals can happen very easily and very suddenly. Even when you’re not directly interacting with a critter, one can surprise you with a nip or a kick. Being fully aware of your surroundings when doing any activity on the homestead can help to keep you on your toes, mentally keeping track of where the animals are and who’s around you.
Farm animals, like most critters, use their mouths to explore objects and their environment. That can turn an inquisitive bite from a pig into a possible break in the skin or a nasty bruise. Anyone who’s worn shiny earrings around turkeys knows to be extra cautious and mindful. Personally, I have collected an array of scars from rabbit handling. It’s unfortunate and can be scary, but it does happen from time to time.
The most important thing for any injuries involving farm animals is disinfection. Despite making sure the animals are healthy with clean bedding, farmyards are teeming with bacteria and microbes, so a break in the skin is directly exposing your system to all of it.
After removing yourself from the incident and securing the animal, if need be, antiseptic is your next step. I’ve always used a “more is more” approach when it comes to antiseptic and animal-related wounds, you really can’t use too much. If the wound is bleeding a bit more than is manageable—with gauze, a piece of cloth like a handkerchief or clean rag—pressure and elevation are your friend.
Once you have bleeding under control and you’re in a safe area, washing the wound with antibacterial soap and clean water is in order. This will also allow you to evaluate the injury thoroughly. Minor scratches and bites will typically only need a good cleaning, antibiotic ointment, and bandaging. Some wounds might need a doctor’s evaluation, more involved cleaning of the site, and sutures if it’s wide or deep enough.
While this doesn’t cover every possible injury or mishap that can happen, I hope that it shines a light on how important preparation and being properly educated is on the homestead. Having appropriate training (CPR/BLS), keeping a homestead first aid kit stocked and available at all times, and staying in a calm and collected mindset can greatly improve the outcome in any emergency situation.