It’s a simple concept with profound implications: Ignoring hazards magnifies their potential danger, while acknowledging threats and embracing their reality empowers individuals to be proactive in their efforts to prevent accidents.
So, what does that require? For agricultural workers, a heaping dose of brutal honesty – one steeped in optimism and seasoned with a solid sense of self-preservation – is a great start. Pragmatically, it’s the realization that solid data show that farming remains one of the most dangerous occupations nationwide.
Consider these stats from the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2013 study: Farming accounted for 500 fatalities, or 23.2 deaths per 100,000 workers. In terms of injuries, data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show that about 167 agricultural workers suffer a lost-work-time injury every day. One in 20 of those injuries will leave permanent impairment.
As daunting as these numbers seem, the U.S. agricultural network continues to thrive, due, in large part, to an ever-increasing awareness of the job’s inherent risks and an ever-growing commitment to holding these hazards at bay. Safety starts with knowledge, but endures through diligent attention to protocols and procedures designed to maintain a buffer between farm workers and the many sources of imperilment.
In terms of injuries, data from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show that about 167 agricultural workers suffer a lost-work-time injury every day.
That truth takes center stage the third week of September as National Farm Safety and Health Week continues a tradition dating back to 1944. The 2015 celebration notched up the emphasis with the real-world message intended to motivate everyone who plants, grows, picks, and packs to integrate safety into their daily duties.
Indeed, the 2015 theme, “Ag Safety is not just a slogan, it’s a lifestyle,” espouses a prudent mindset. It serves to remind local and rural communities that, while agricultural work presents a perpetual atmosphere of risk, that needn’t impede their ability to earn a living in this occupation so vital to America’s domestic food supply.
Promoted annually by the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety (NECAS), the late summer event has been recognized by a proclamation by each sitting U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the original documentation more than seven decades ago. While the annual focus brings a spike in attention, NECAS Director Dan Neenan said he hopes the wisdom of points made will resonate year-round.
“We get that week where we can pinpoint and get that information out, but we really hope that people take it to heart and make it a daily thought process,” Neenan said. “It’s about thinking every day how to make our jobs safer.”
Farming safety hazards lurk in a wide range of areas, but according to the National Ag Safety Database, tractor accidents – particularly rollovers – are the single deadliest form of farming accident. NIOSH backs up that assertion with this sobering statistic: Each year, approximately 250 farm workers perish in tractor rollover accidents.
Tragically, most of these fatalities could have been prevented with rollover protective structures (ROPS), which form a frame around the tractor operator to minimize an accident’s impact.
Farming safety hazards lurk in a wide range of areas, but according to the National Ag Safety Database, tractor accidents – particularly rollovers – are the single deadliest form of farming accident.
Reminding us of the farm tractor’s deep list of safety considerations, Neenan points out that, while hilly and uneven terrain generally present operational challenges for tractor operators, adding wet weather and muddy ground creates a situation ripe with rollover risk. ROPS-equipped tractors give operators a better chance of escaping serious injury, but snapping those safety belts is an absolute must.
“Traveling with an implement that is heavier than what the tractor was designed for can create a safety hazard,” Neenan said. “Yes, the tractor with the diesel engine is strong enough to get it going, but the big problem is stopping.
“If you’re trying to slow down to take a turn, that implement might push you forward and into a ditch and roll you over. So we really have to make sure that the implement is the correct size for the tractor with which we’re using it.”
Neenan makes a key point that speaks to the dangerous trade-off between safety and haste. Bypass starting – the act of starting a tractor with means other than the normal starting system while standing outside the operator’s position – might save time on a cool morning, but this creates an extraordinary risk.
“We never want to bypass start a tractor,” he said. “A tractor will bypass start while it’s in gear and if you bypass start it, you’re typically right in front of the rear tire and several farmers are injured or killed each year doing this. Getting the starter rebuilt or replaced is definitely the safest route.”
A year-round concern throughout the entire United States, proper lighting, marking, and slow-moving vehicle emblems are critical to maintaining visibility for motorists with whom farming equipment and vehicles often share the roadways. Particularly during mornings and afternoons, the generally rushed demeanor of most commuters can turn an annoyance into a tragedy.
Turning left into farmsteads, Neenan said, amplifies the risk, as motorists attempting to pass may not be aware of the intent. Farm workers can help prevent accidents by maintaining clear windows and mirrors, but Neenan also notes the motorists’ role in this interaction.
“Getting behind a piece of farming equipment is no different than coming into a traffic signal, so slow down,” he said. “We need to make sure that when we pass them, we pass safely. From the farming aspect or from the rural roadway side, a collision is going to be a lose-lose.
“There’s going to be some injuries; there’s going to be some equipment that will have to go out of service. So, if we can take a little bit more time, we can hopefully prevent an incident from happening.”
The tools of the agricultural worker are often intended to perform arduous tasks with processes rife with dangerous potential. As Neenan explained, farm workers often remove machinery guarding to repair a non-working part, but fail to replace the safety devices because they’re in a hurry to get back to work. This creates the potential for catastrophic injury when workers become exposed to moving parts intended to remain shielded.
Neenan offers this example: Removing a tractor’s power take-off (PTO) shield exposes a shaft that’s spinning at about 540 rpm – a dangerous snare for loose-fitting clothing, jacket drawstrings, or long hair.
“There’s only about 6-7 inches between the PTO shaft and the draw bar, and it’s going to try and fit that person through there at 540 times per minute, which isn’t going to have a good outcome,” Neenan said. “Also, if we take the safety [guarding] off another piece of equipment, like, say, a grain mill, it has the same potential to grab someone, especially little kids, if it’s down at their level.”
No one knows this better than Missouri farmer Brian Fleischmann, who lost part of his right arm during a farming accident he described as fully preventable. Speaking in an educational video for the Missouri Department of Labor, Fleischmann recounted the fateful day when he was harvesting corn with a one-row picker and found his header jammed with stalks.
Taking the tractor out of gear and locking the brake addressed a common tractor risk, but against the farm training he credits to 20 years of his father’s teaching, Fleischmann left the PTO running. Attempting to clear the choking stalks led to a life-altering injury that he now uses to illustrate the need for farm safety awareness.
“We get into bad habits and we never think about having an accident – it’s always someone else,” Fleischmann said. “But it can happen to you and I’m a living example of that.”
Removing a tractor’s power take-off (PTO) shield exposes a shaft that’s spinning at about 540 rpm – a dangerous snare for loose-fitting clothing, jacket drawstrings, or long hair.
From brush hogging, to pulling tillage equipment or hay wagons, Fleischmann points to the tractor as the central piece of equipment for most farming operations. It’s this familiarity, he said, that allows danger to infiltrate the work day.
“We get careless with the tractor because we’ve used it so much we get lax on using it,” he said. “When people see, in person, the life-changing injury that I have had, it makes them think about safety.
“I tell people that the life you knew ends the day of [such] an accident. Even though some have done dangerous things, they realize they could be next. I hope that the image of [my injury] will stay with them and make them act safely and not just talk it.”
Here’s a look at some of the other safety risks found on farms:
Crop-specific Risks: Green Tobacco Sickness, essentially nicotine poisoning from handling tobacco leaves, occurs when rain, dew, or sweat allow the chemical to pass through the worker’s skin and enter the blood stream.
In some cases, workers may suffer a less obvious safety concern with delayed impacts. Of the grape industry, Neenan said:
“You may not have the initial trauma to start with, but you have that repetitive motion injury that you’re dealing with. The bending over when you’re working with those plants can cause that.”
In these cases and others, proper safety procedures such as hand protection and cleaning and ergonomically correct movements can minimize such hazards.
Personal Health: Many of the daily medications individuals must take are food dependent. Under normal meal schedules, that’s a non-issue. However, when the workload pushes a farmer to maximize daylight, such otherwise manageable medical conditions may quickly spiral into potentially dangerous situations.
“If they take their medicine and they’re right in the middle of spring planting season, they may not take their breaks and eat as normal,” Neenan said. “That can cause a low blood sugar event in which you lose your ability to think and your hand-eye coordination [diminishes].”
That being said, the importance of regularly scheduled breaks cannot be overstated. From maintaining a medicinal regimen to simple nutrition and hydration, healthy bodies promote the alertness that is vital in this potentially hazardous work environment.
Heat Hazards: Throughout much of the growing season, long hours of outside labor put farmers at risk of heat-related maladies. OSHA breaks this down into two levels of severity.
Heat exhaustion brings these symptoms:
- Headache, dizziness, or fainting
- Weakness and wet skin
- Irritability or confusion
- Thirst, nausea, or vomiting
Heat stroke symptoms include:
- Confusion, inability to think clearly
- Passing out, collapsing
- Increased sweating or may stop sweating
When in doubt, seeking medical attention for the afflicted is the right move, but in most instances, following OSHA’s recommended practices – water, shade, rest – provides sufficient remedy.
Electrocutions: The National Safety Council reports an average of more than 40 such fatalities annually directly related to farming operations. Electrocutions most often result from damaged or improperly operated hand tools and contact with electric power lines and utility poles.
Grain Hazards: The main concerns here are grain entrapment, combustible dust, and dangerous equipment presenting pinch points.
Other agricultural risks include slips and falls, chemical exposure, and hearing damage/loss due to excessive noise.
Being aware of potential dangers and planning ahead can make a tremendous difference in the event of an accident or emergency, as Neenan explained using the example of safety in the context of grain bins.
“You should never enter a grain bin or a manure pit alone; there should always be somebody there with [you],” he said. “That attendant is paying attention to what happens to the person inside, and if that person becomes trapped or unresponsive, that attendant’s job is not to go in after them, but to call 911 and to be there when the [first responders get there].
“Unfortunately, if they try to help, and they may become trapped and unresponsive, they’re not helping that primary person out of danger.”
Additionally, Neenan pointed out that, because many small farmers are now operating on rented property, quickly identifying their location for first responders may not be as simple as stating a home or business address – a location that actually may be a considerable distance from their worksite. In the event of an emergency, this could cost valuable time for emergency personnel arrival.
“It’s taking that safety-first thought process and applying it to every day.” — Dan Neenan
“It’s important for [farm workers] to know the 911 address or the physical address of the farm,” Neenan said. “As 911 centers are being consolidated, you can’t dial 911 and say, ‘I’m at the old Joe Smith farm.’ Ten years ago, you could do that and the dispatcher would know where the old Joe Smith farm was, but that’s not an expectation any more.
“Everyone pays $1 a month for the 911 fee on their cell phone, and from that, we can use GPS to figure out where you are. But that takes time, and in an emergency, we may not have that time.”
Easy fix: Write down the farm’s physical address, along with “911” and leave a copy in every vehicle, tractor, or combine. If the unthinkable occurs, this information will ensure the fastest emergency response possible.
Referring to a previously discussed element of tractor safety – ensuring that lighting and markings on farm equipment are visible to other roadway users – to illustrate the wisdom of proactive safety practices, Neenan offered this closing thought:
“It’s taking that safety-first thought process and applying it to every day. Unfortunately, we get into a hurry, and when we get in a hurry, we think it’s not a big deal. But if that motorist behind can’t see us in time to react or slow down in time, an injury can occur.”
Similar wisdom, no doubt, applies across the spectrum of agricultural jobs.
Caption for top photo: A small Kubota B 7610 tractor with a rollover protective structure (ROPS) in South Bend, Indiana. Rollover protection and always wearing a seatbelt are important to operator safety. Credit: Photo by Shannon Ramos
This article was originally published in the 2016 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.