“The average fatality costs a family farm $1 million dollars,” said Frank Gasperini, president of the Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America. He is a straight-talker whose career involves looking at grim statistics and helping other organizations make a difference. If the dollar cost of a farm fatality isn’t sobering enough, he added that “statistics show that if the person who died was a principal operator, that farm will likely be under the ownership of someone else within two years.”
Farming is not just dangerous work, it’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. In 2016, there were 260 farming-related deaths, which is 23.1 deaths per 100,000 workers. That rate puts farming and ranching neatly within the 10 most dangerous U.S. jobs – in the company of industries like logging, roofing, steel work, and trucking.
It has always been a dangerous profession. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. In fact, some sectors within the industry are steadily improving.
“The bigger farms that produce probably about 80 percent of the nation’s food – most of them are family-owned corporations – their safety statistics get better every year,” said Gasperini, who runs the Virginia-based nonprofit organization that’s trying to develop an industry-wide culture of safety. He said that large farms tend to handle safety just like any other businesses. Large farm operators understand that they can lower their worker compensation costs by improving their worker safety stats.
“So it becomes an economic issue,” said Gasperini. When an owner understands how expensive it can be to not be safe, they will conduct safety training and put programs in place. “If you have enough employees, you cannot afford, for instance, to have a foreman who refuses to work safely. You can let him go. And they do at these larger operations.”
Farming is not just dangerous work, it’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. In 2016, there were 260 farming-related deaths, which is 23.1 deaths per 100,000 workers.
To improve safety, corporations and state farm bureaus are becoming proactive on training. Dan Neenan is at the forefront of this effort. He’s the director of the National Education Center for Agriculture Safety (NECAS), one of the only organizations completely devoted to providing hands-on safety education programs to farmers, agribusiness, and first responders. NECAS instructors are invited to rural areas to give demonstrations on subjects like grain bin safety and victim extraction – or how to safely rescue a person who has passed out in a manure bin.
In the latter example, Neenan said that victims will enter manure pits when it’s time to turn over their contents before field fertilization. But many cattle farmers use discarded drywall in their animal bedding, which is collected in the bins. The gypsum in drywall contains sulphur, which creates deadly hydrogen sulfide gases when mixed with manure. An adult can pass out after just two or three breaths of these fumes. “Then you have a situation where people may go in to rescue that person, and they are in the same situation.” So NECAS’s training programs are aimed at farm workers and first responders. (He noted that manure pit air quality monitors can be expensive to own, but some ag extension offices are starting to offer them on loan. Farmers check them out and check them back in as needed.)
In the case of farmers, NECAS instructors teach proper manure pit ventilation as well has safety harness techniques. Farmers learn how to ensure that the pit is safe before anyone goes in, and if something does go wrong, how the victim can be quickly hauled out without endangering anyone else. Neenan’s team has been teaching lessons like this to a wide variety of audiences, including large corporate farms and Amish communities. They have also been engaging with fire departments to teach them how to enter the pits safely and what to do when you get a victim back into fresh air.
And a lot of firefighters need training to understand how farming equipment works. “Combines are built to rip and tear and shred. Whether it’s a corn stalk, soybeans, or a human, the machine is not going to stop,” said Neenan. “So these firemen need to understand what the machine is and what it does, so that if someone gets caught in one, they know how to get that person out without causing more harm to them or anyone else involved.”
While large farms are seeing improvements in overall safety, Gasperini noted the opposite trend – increases in deaths and serious injuries – on very small farms, part-time farms, and hobby farms. Part of this comes from a growing number of baby boomers retiring and choosing an agricultural lifestyle. “Say you buy a small farm and an old tractor, your [safety] statistics are probably going to be bad.” Gasperini fears that this trend will continue to worsen for a few years, and he compared it to a previous boomer-related safety trend. “It happened with motorcycle statistics about 10 or 15 years ago, when they started buying big motorcycles because they always wanted a bike. Motorcycle death statistics crept up, and it was because of all the 50-year-old newbies.”
Boomers aside, he added, “If you are on a farm with maybe one hired person and a couple of family members, you probably never had any formal training in safety: You are probably working with short resources and old equipment. You often don’t have the proper equipment to do certain jobs safely.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is another factor in making larger farms safer places to work. Gasperini noted that small farms that only grow and harvest foods (in other words, no processing) and employ fewer than 10 people the entire year can fly under OSHA’s radar. So these farm owners are often not aware of their responsibilities to ensure a safe and healthy working environment.
Smaller farms also tend to handle livestock manually, which is a high source of injuries. And, Gasperini pointed out, small family farms and hobby farms tend to have more workers past retirement age. “At this stage, you’re more brittle, and an injury is more likely to be fatal for someone who is 75 or 80.” Injuries – like those sustained through rough contact with livestock – that might have cracked a rib in the same person 40 years earlier tend to be more severe for older farmers.
Injuries are exacerbated on small farms because people tend to work alone. Solitary farmers who get hurt on the job may not get help until it’s too late. Meanwhile, workers on busier farms tend to have more people nearby, and they benefit from faster emergency response.
One safety factor worth noting is that the newer a farm’s equipment is, the safer the farm tends to be. That especially stands true for tractors, which are statistically the single-most dangerous pieces of farm equipment. “The equipment is huge now, and there’s a lot you cannot do with it that you could do with an old tractor,” Gasperini said. “For instance, you cannot stand on the ground, reach over, and start the engine. People do that all the time [with old tractors]. And people die every year because their tractor is still in gear when they start the engine, causing the tractor to lurch forward – or the tractor takes off, and the equipment runs over them. You can’t do that with new tractors. The cabs now are almost two stories high!” And he added that tractors of all sizes have sensors in the seats and seatbelts that require the operator to be sitting, buckled in, to start the engine.
One safety factor worth noting is that the newer a farm’s equipment is, the safer the farm tends to be. That especially stands true for tractors, which are statistically the single-most dangerous pieces of farm equipment.
However, tractors have exceptionally long lifespans. A study in 2012 found that the average age of a tractor was 25 years old, and some of the oldest models were the most popular. This is problematic because basic rollover protection systems (ROPS), like rollover bars and seatbelts, became standard equipment for tractors with more than 20 horsepower in the mid-1980s.
Gasperini said that 85 to 90 percent of rollover fatalities can be prevented by having a ROPS system in place.
To address this, the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety in Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing (NEC) launched the ROPS Rebate Program in 2006 in the state of New York. Last year, it grew to national scale under the umbrella of the National Tractor Safety Coalition. The program works with farmers who want to upgrade their tractors to have rollover protection. They help the farmers identify the equipment each tractor will need as well as the estimated cost of installation. Then the farmer coordinates with the manufacturer or local dealer to get the equipment. When it is installed, the National Tractor Safety Coalition reimburses the farmer for about 70 percent of the cost.
As of December 2017, the ROPS Rebate Program has helped retrofit rollbars on 2,519 tractors, according to Pam Tinc, senior research coordinator for agriculture safety for NEC. And right now they have 459 people on the waiting list.
Tinc said that when the program first began in New York, farmers were reluctant. There was a general attitude that the rollbars were unnecessary for experienced tractor drivers. “But that has really changed,” she said. Many farmers in that state have had multiple tractors retrofitted. The organization follows up with regular surveys of farmers who have gone through the program. “A lot of time in the notes, someone will write, ‘Thankfully I haven’t had an event, but the fact that the rollbar is there, and the seatbelt is there, is a really good reminder that I need to be careful.’”
Through their surveys of New York farmers, more than 200 New Yorkers have reported close-call incidents, and 26 farmers were saved by rollover equipment in accidents that otherwise would have resulted in serious injury or death. As long as farmers continue to think about safety, and make active steps to encourage it, many more lives can be saved.
Caption for top photo: A farm safety demonstration by NECAS at the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport, Iowa, on Aug. 6, 2017, taught first responders how to free a mock operator who was pinned under an overturned tractor. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue (pictured at left in firefighter gear), who attended the fair, took part in the training. USDA photo by Lance Cheung
This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.