Safe Animal Handling
Updated August 2023
Animal handling is a common cause of injury to people on the swine farm. Injuries to both people and pigs may occur when working with pigs of all ages and stages of production. Tasks most frequently associated with injury include moving pigs within the farm, working with the large animals of the breeding herd, while loading or unloading for transport, and during piglet processing. Strategies to maintain safety and prevent the most common injuries will be reviewed. Situations and facilities vary, however, and this list is not meant to be inclusive of all prevention and control strategies but to help stimulate the problem-solving process for producers.
- Learn how to minimize the risk of injury while handling pigs.
- Understand how pig handling equipment and personal protective equipment contribute to a safe working environment for pigs and people.
- Recognize and minimize safety risks in each stage of production.
General Animal Handling
Pigs are cautious animals and may experience a great deal of stress when interacting with humans. Understanding the pig’s natural behaviors can make these interactions better for both the pigs and the people. Three basic components of pig behavior associated with handling are the flight zone, the blind spot, and the point of balance (Figure 1). The flight zone is the area immediately surrounding the pig which it considers its comfort space; the pig will naturally move away from any human who enters the pig’s flight zone. The size of the flight zone may change in response to multiple factors, including the pig’s prior interactions with people, the pig’s current surroundings, and the behavior of the human handler. Frequent positive human interactions will increase pig comfort and decrease the size of the flight zone. Additionally, swine farm workers should strive to be calm and deliberate in their actions to allow the pig to also be calm and comfortable while moving. A stressed pig may be calmed by moving out of the flight zone (away from the pig). It is unsafe to enter the flight zone of a pig in a confined area. The point of balance is located at the pig’s front shoulder and will determine which direction the pig moves away from people who enter the flight zone. Entering the flight zone in front of the shoulder (near the pig’s head) will typically cause the pig to move backward. On the other hand, entering the flight zone behind the shoulder (near the pig’s tail) will typically cause the pig to move forward. People who stand in front of the pig are at risk of injury if a different person enters the flight zone behind the point of balance. Finally, the blind spot is the area directly behind the pig which they cannot see. Pigs have a range of vision of nearly 360 degrees, but they cannot see behind them without turning their heads. Entering the pig’s flight zone in the blind spot may cause an unpredictable response as they turn to see the potential threat. Working pigs from the side or maintaining reassuring contact with the pig’s body, when possible, can help to minimize stress associated with the blind spot and keep the pig comfortable during handling.
Planning the pig’s route before entering the flight zone minimizes animal stress and promotes safety. Identify and remove any distractions or deterrents along the path to prevent balking and keep the pigs proceeding in the intended direction. For example, pigs will be startled by moving objects or people in the pig’s field of vision. Installing solid sidewalls on loading ramps or chutes is effective to minimize distractions. Additionally, pigs prefer moving from dimly lit areas to more brightly lit areas. If working pigs in low light, directing a spotlight towards the intended path may help to facilitate pig movement. Be sure to remove any sharp or protruding objects from the alleyway prior to moving pigs.
The number of pigs to move at one time is determined by the size of the animals and the physical layout of the work area. The human handler must be able to maintain control of all pigs in the group at all times. Indeed, pig groups move better by prompting the leader, rather than pushing the whole group from behind. Suggested group size for various stages of production include:
- Entering the nursery – 20 pigs
- Entering the finisher: 10 pigs
- Leaving the finisher: 3 to 5 pigs
- Breeding gilts and sows: 1 to 5 pigs
- Boars: Typically, 1 pig
The majority of injuries on a swine farm occur during human-animal interactions. Understanding the basic concepts of pig behavior and movement can help to alleviate the threat of injury. When handling pigs, remember:
- Know the basic characteristics of pig vision and behaviors.
- Maintain cleanliness in the barn to remove obstacles from the pig’s movement pathway.
- Stay calm and touch the animals gently.
- Be aware of your surroundings and body position in relation to the pigs.
- Maintain even lighting throughout the planned route of movement.
- Expose animals to loud noises or quick movements.
- Clutter alleyways and walking surfaces.
- Enter a small enclosed area with an animal unless you have an escape route.
- Overcrowd pens or chutes.
Pig Handling Equipment and Personal Protective Equipment
Using proper equipment while handling pigs minimizes stress and reduces the likelihood of injury. Pig handling equipment can be used to control pig movement and to provide physical protection (Figure 2). Examples of pig handling equipment include visual stimuli (i.e., flags or capes) and auditory stimuli (i.e., shakers or rattle paddles). Physical barriers, such as sorting boards, provide both a visual stimulus and protection for the handler. These tools are appropriate to use for all pigs, but especially larger pigs such as market hogs or breeding swine. It is important to use these tools correctly. In the case of sorting boards, the panel should be positioned in front and away from the body and it should be anchored on the ground and not against the knees. When used correctly and in combination with the pig’s natural movements, handling tools promote safe and humane animal handling. Minimize or avoid the use of electric prods. Over-reliance on electric prods typically indicates worker failure to understand the basic principles of pig behavior, improper utilization of animal handling equipment, or poor planning of the movement route. Evaluate handling procedures and pig movement pathways to alleviate pig balking and stress instead of overutilizing electric prods. Excessive or malicious use of handling equipment is a willful act of abuse, is not tolerated on any swine farm, and carries a significant risk of injuries to pigs and people.
Utilizing personal protective equipment elevates human safety when working with pigs. Common examples of protective equipment associated with animal handling are knee pads and steel toe boots that are slip-resistant and durable. Other personal protective equipment, such as hearing protection or eye protection, may also be valuable to reduce hazard exposure while on the farm. All personal protective equipment must be in good condition and thoroughly checked for damage before working pigs.
Equipment can be a valuable tool to promote safety when handling pigs. When considering equipment usage, remember:
- Know the types of animal handling equipment, and which is appropriate for each stage of production.
- Use animal handling equipment in combination with the pig’s natural behaviors.
- Utilize personal protective equipment to enhance safety when working with pigs.
- Train all members of the farm staff to use equipment correctly.
- Maliciously use animal handling equipment.
- Use personal protective equipment without first checking for damage.
Safe handling of the breeding herd
Injuries may result when handling breeding pigs due to the large size of these animals. Additionally, breeding tasks often require close contact with the pigs and the workspace may be restrictive, depending on the farm’s sow housing protocols. Farm tasks unique to the breeding herd include heat detection, mating, and farrowing. All breeding animals are dangerous, yet boars can be the most aggressive. Aggression may be heightened when a boar is having trouble mounting a sow, after the boar dismounts the sow or collection dummy, if the boar is in close proximity to another boar, and when the boar becomes protective of the sow.
Heat detection (estrus detection) requires exposing female pigs to a mature male to identify sexual receptivity. Swine farm workers should be aware that sexual desire makes pig behavior unpredictable. A boar with good libido may be aggressive towards human handlers when near females; similarly, females that are in heat may act impetuously while in the presence of the boar. Allowing the pigs to share full physical contact will intensify these behaviors. Research shows that snout-to-snout contact across a fence line is sufficient to detect estrus in gilts and sows (Kemp et al., 2005), and the protective barrier provided by the fence is a significant safety advantage for both pigs and people.
Injuries may occur during artificial insemination or natural breeding. Artificial insemination requires stimulating the gilt or sow by pressing or leaning on the back while inserting the AI rod. Because this is typically accomplished while the pig is confined in a breeding stall, it is important to be aware of the sow’s movements. If the sow jumps and catches a worker’s hand between the stall and her body, the worker’s hand or fingers could get crushed without warning. If inseminating sows in group housing, farm workers should be aware of their positioning in relation to the other sows in the pen as the presence and movement of these other sows may place the breeding technician in an unsafe situation. Injuries may also occur while supervising natural mating. Poor floor conditions due to accumulated manure, urine, and semen spillage may cause the boar to slip. Be sure to keep the pens clean and dry. A floor covering with good traction will help to minimize slippage. Additionally, a boar may have trouble locking up with a sow and may fall off and injure themselves or a worker. Regardless of the method of breeding, handlers must make sure they are always aware of their position in relation to the animals. The safest place is typically behind the pigs and at a safe distance.
Possible animal handling hazards in the farrowing house include washing and moving sows to or from the farrowing area, interacting with stressed females, and during piglet processing. Workers should be cautious when moving the sows because they may become aggressive. Utilize animal handling equipment and personal protective equipment effectively to reduce the risk of injuries such as back and neck strain or slips and falls. Additionally, take advantage of the pig’s herding instincts and move gilts and sows in small, manageable groups. Washing sows prior to loading into the farrowing area is a common practice to maintain hygienic conditions in the maternity ward. Make sure that the washing area is sturdy enough to hold the sows being washed. When entering the wash area, be aware of your position so you do not get pushed or stepped on by other sows. Washing sows in small groups makes them easier to handle.
Sows may be easily stressed around the time of farrowing. They may also be protective of their newborn piglets and react aggressively to human caretakers. Confining sows in farrowing crates around the time of farrowing greatly promotes human safety and improves worker ability to assist with dystocia. Still, workers should avoid reaching between the bars of the farrowing crate. Sows housed in a free farrowing area will have greater liberty to stand and move during farrowing, and workers must be aware of their positioning relative to the sow at all times. A clear escape route must be identified in advance if the sow is farrowing in an area that is not easily accessible.
Punctures, cuts, and needle stick injuries are among the most common injuries that handlers experience while processing piglets. These can happen when clipping teeth, giving shots, cutting tails, ear notching/tagging, and castrating. Workers in large sow complexes may process several hundred pigs in one day. This requires handlers to remain focused and attentive. Fatigue increases a handler’s chances for injury. Encourage farm workers to take advantage of scheduled breaks to avoid becoming overtired and to help them stay focused.
Injuries may occur when handling the breeding herd due to the large size of the pigs and the close contact required by the type of work. When handling the breeding herd, remember:
- Use sorting boards and be aware of your position in relation to the animals.
- Have an easily accessible escape route if it becomes necessary to quickly get out of the area.
- Consider humanely removing the tusks of the boar.
- Keep floors clean and dry to prevent slipping.
- Take regularly scheduled breaks while processing piglets to reduce fatigue and prevent injuries resulting from preventable accidents.
- Position oneself too close to the boar, or between a boar and a sow.
- Reach into the sow’s space while she is confined.
Safe handling of the wean-to-finish herd
The risk of injury when handling the wean-to-finish herd increases as pigs get older and heavier. Improperly lifting the pig is the primary source of injury at weaning and in the nursery. Pigs leaving the finisher will average about 280 pounds, and moving these pigs can result in serious human and animal injury if appropriate techniques are not used. Workers need to realize the strength and agility that pigs possess. Follow these techniques and recommendations to promote human and animal safety throughout the wean-to-finish production stages.
- Work in teams and have assistance when possible.
- When lifting a piglet alone, position yourself parallel to the pig you are lifting. Then secure your grip on the outside leg and use the second hand on the other leg. Use the front legs of the pig to help support some of the weight until the pig is in a vertical position.
In the nursery:
- Remember that the risk of injury resulting from lifting a pig increases as the pigs get older and heavier.
- Workers should always perform proper lifting techniques to prevent back injuries. A proper lifting technique includes the following steps: 1. Position yourself parallel to the pig you are lifting, 2. Secure your grip on the outside leg with the hand you are using to lift and use the second hand on the other leg if the pig is heavy, 3. Use the front legs of the pig to help support some of the weight until the pig is in a vertical position, then lift the pig straight up to clear any gates and 4. Lift the pig with your legs and arms, never with your back.
In the finisher, and during loading or unloading for transport
- Use a sorting board correctly to move and direct the pigs. Never move the pig with your knees.
- Don’t attempt to challenge a pig that is moving forcefully towards you.
- All workers should be aware of the location of their co-workers and work together to move the animals.
- Workers should remain calm, and only load small groups at one time. The more excited the pig becomes, the harder it will be to handle.
- Resist the urge to move too many pigs at one time. The injuries that may result from poor pig handling are not worth the few seconds to be gained from rushing.
Safety considerations when injecting pigs
Injections are a necessary component of animal health plans. Accidental needle sticks are the primary injury risk associated with providing injections and these injuries can be very serious. Needles must be capped and pointed in a safe direction when not in use.
Every farm must have a reporting system and response plan in place for needle sticks. Workers whose duties involve giving injections to the animals – or administering medication at any time – should immediately report any accidental injections of antibiotics or medications to their supervisor. Deaths and severe medical reactions have been reported after accidental injections of certain medications meant for animals. If a caretaker is accidentally injected with a medication and has a seizure, stops breathing, or has any physical reaction, call 911 immediately to summon professional emergency medical help. In the case of severe cuts, control the bleeding first and summon the person trained in First Aid at the farm. If the injury is minor, wash the wound with soap and water, cover the area with a sterile bandage, report the injury, and seek medical attention, if necessary.
Injectable medications are valuable components of animal health plans. When injecting pigs, remember:
- Take scheduled breaks to avoid fatigue. Many needle stick injuries are the result of carelessness associated with tiredness and repetition.
- Keep your wrists in a neutral position.
- Read the package insert, label, and Medication Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for any medications administered to the pigs, and use the product only as directed on the package.
- Immediately report all accidental needle sticks to your supervisor.
- Carry a syringe and needle in your pockets.
- Fail to recap needles when not in use.
- Place your hands between a pig and the side of a stall.
Safety when removing dead stock
Unfortunately, large pigs may die on the farm and must then be removed. This task can be challenging and straining. Safe practices to follow when removing dead pigs include:
- Removal as soon as possible. It becomes increasingly difficult to remove the animal with greater time between death and removal.
- Use care not to strain or pull your muscles.
- Use a mechanical device such as a hog cart or hand truck to help with the removal.
- If a mechanical device is not available, use a humane snare or rope to remove the dead animal.
- Workers should not attempt to remove a dead animal by themselves. Recruit fellow workers to assist in this difficult task.
Livestock can easily hurt farmers and farm workers. Pigs are cautious animals and can be unpredictable and should always be treated with care. Lifting or pushing animals can result in body strain or injury. Ensuring that all people on the farm are properly trained and familiar with pig behavior and temperament is key for a safe animal-handling environment. Prepare for any work ahead of time, keep a barrier between yourself and the animals, and seek assistance, if necessary.
Here are some of the frequent questions asked regarding this subject:
Q. Why do pigs balk at entering dark or unfamiliar areas?
A. Pigs have a natural tendency to move from dimly lit areas to more brightly lit areas. This tendency can be used to make moving pigs easier and less stressful for both the animals and the handlers. For example, placing a spotlight on loading ramps can often facilitate entry into otherwise challenging areas. Pigs also tend to balk at unfamiliar objects, such as drain grates or hoses. You can avoid this by eliminating unfamiliar objects from the pig’s movement pathway.
Q. How can I properly protect myself while handling pigs?
A. Use animal handling equipment, including physical barriers such as sorting boards, and personal protective equipment (PPE), such as knee pads and steel toe boots, to protect you from injury while handling pigs. Consult with animal handling experts or farm ownership about the types of animal handling equipment and PPE that is best for each stage of production.
Q. Where can I find additional information and resources on safe animal handling?
A. Safe Pig Handling Training Modules are provided free of charge by the National Pork Board to pork producers. These modules include training videos and informational handouts that may be posted on the farm. All materials are available in both English and Spanish. To learn more, visit: porkcheckoff.org/certification-tools/producers-tools/safe-pig-care/.
References and Citations
Kemp, B., N.M. Soede, and P. Langendijk. 2005. Effects of boar contact and housing conditions on estrus expression in sows. Theriogenology. 63(2):643-656.
Pork Quality Assurance Ver. 5.0 National Pork Board, Des Moines, IA. Available online: https://porkcheckoff.org/certification-tools/training-certification/pqa-plus/
Figure 1. The three basic considerations of pig behavior to remember during handling are the flight zone, the blind spot, and the point of balance. (Originally published in PQA Plus, Ver. 5.0, National Pork Board, Des Moines, Iowa.
Figure 2. Commonly used swine handling equipment include sorting boards (A) and rattle paddles (B). Sorting boars provide a visual stimulus and a physical deterrent, and are effective when working with larger pigs, such as the breeding herd. Rattle paddles provide both visual and auditory stimuli.