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Saving Lives with Farm Safety By: Jane Hulse

“A lot of times, one small mistake is going to cost you your life,” said Jed Bookman, safety and risk coordinator at Sunrise Cooperative, an Ohio grain storage facility. “This is a life or death situation.”

When a worker enters a grain bin, the situation can become dangerous very quickly. Grain can get stuck to the walls of the storage unit and trap workers when it falls or can form a crust that hides air pockets. These air pockets will suck a worker down and entrap them if walked on.

“It could be almost instantaneous,” said Bookman. “Once it starts happening, there’s not a lot someone can do to get out.” If they do not get out, the worker could easily suffocate in the grain.

THE HAZARDS FARMERS FACE

Working in grain silos is just one of many hazardous jobs a farmer does on any given day. Given this, it becomes clear how farming is statistically one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. This danger is often compounded by hazards, such as weather or livestock, that cannot be fully controlled or guarded against.

As Lisa Pfeifer, educational program manager with The Ohio State University Extension’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program, explained, “there are a lot of factors that contribute to hazards on the farm that people don’t see in a typical job; even a typical job that might have a high rate of injury or fatality can’t really compare to the farm life.”

Agriculture ranked as the eighth-most dangerous job based on rate of fatal work injuries according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a sub-agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported 417 farm workers died from work-related injuries in 2016 – a fatality rate of 21.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. According to the Agricultural Safety and Health Program, Ohio had 128 fatalities over the past decade but hit a low of six fatalities in 2016.

These deaths and injuries can be caused by a variety of risk factors. Farmers perform physically demanding labor in all weather conditions. Depending on the farm and season, farm workers do risk-laden activities such as operating heavy machinery, driving vehicles on dangerous terrain, handling livestock, working in grain silos and working with hazardous chemicals. On top of these immediate risk factors, there is also the risk of cumulative damage, such as hearing loss or skin cancer from long-term exposure to loud equipment or the sun, respectively.

However, the most dangerous piece of equipment on the farm is the tractor. Pfeifer explained, since almost every type of farm operation has a tractor and tractors are driven over every type of terrain, including the edges of roads, riding a tractor is one of the leading injury agents on the farm. Between 2007 and 2016, there were 66 tractor-related deaths in Ohio. In comparison, equipment, machinery and wagons, the next highest-ranking fatality factor, caused 12 deaths in the same amount of time. Of these 66 deaths, 59 percent were due to tractor rollover.

Given how dangerous farm work has the potential to be, making sure farmers are educated about farm safety practices is extremely important.

HOW OSU EXTENSION HELPS

The Agricultural Safety and Health program strives to make sure necessary education on farm safety is accessible to people involved in the agricultural world, even if safety may not seem as exciting as some other topics.

“Lots of farmers are interested in new precision technology that we can incorporate into our farms, but to also get them to step back and focus on safety is our ultimate goal,” said Pfeifer.

One of the difficulties the Agricultural Safety and Health program faces in its Extension work is making sure farmers understand these injuries and fatalities can happen to anyone. She explained, “farmers tend to grow up … being part of a farm, so many of them have reached a certain point in their life and never had any kind of injury incident or faced the aftermath of fatality on a farm.”

One of the biggest programs the Agricultural Safety and Health program does is their Grain C.A.R.T. (Comprehensive Agricultural Rescue Trailer). The Grain C.A.R.T is a mobile unit that can simulate a grain entrapment situation which is taken across the state and used to educate first responders about how to respond to a grain engulfment situation if they are ever called to a farm to address such an emergency.

The training with C.A.R.T, “allows them to put a person in that victim role and then rescue them from that grain environment and go through the steps and the tools that they would utilize to do those types of rescues,” said Pfeifer. The cart is also used to educate farmers on prevention mechanisms they can take on the farm to keep themselves safe and to keep from becoming engulfed in grain.

With tractors causing the most injuries and fatalities on the farm, the Agricultural Safety and Health program also focuses a lot of outreach education on tractor safety. They run a Tractor & Machinery Certification Program, which is a 25-hour educational course on how to operate farm machinery safely. The Agricultural Safety and Health program also educates farmers about rollover protection systems (ROPS), which are structures that protect the drivers in the event of an overturn, and the importance of wearing a seat beat while driving a tractor so the ROPS can be effective. This education is important because although the use of both a ROPS and a seatbelt is 99 percent effective in preventing a tractor rollover death, not everyone uses them.

IF WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE NEED TO IMPROVE, WE WON’T IMPROVE.”

Other outreach programs include safety talks in conjunction with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, and farmers who attend these two-hour training sessions receive the added benefit of reduced insurance rates. The Agricultural Safety and Health program does these training sessions on a wide variety of safety topics including tractor rollover, the necessity of hearing protection and dangers of sun exposure. In the future, the program may include even more topics.

“The university is gearing up to focus on farmer stress as well,” said Pfeifer, since the “national implication is that the farming population is seeing more and more effects of stress.”

“We try to listen to feedback of our farmers and do our best to stay out and present in front of them so that they’re not sidelining safety,” Pfeifer said. “We try to follow the emerging trends and needs of our population.”

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

The Extension service works to stay on top of those emerging trends through research. Much of the outreach OSU’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program is informed by research done by Dee Jepsen, Ph.D., state leader for agricultural safety and health.

Jepsen’s research is primarily in surveillance research, meaning she keeps track of injuries and fatalities that happen on farms in Ohio, as well as what caused them and who the victims are. This allows the Agricultural Safety and Health Program to get an idea of what the risk factors on farms actually are so they may be addressed.

As Jepsen said, “If we don’t know what we need to improve, we won’t improve.”

The data is collected through a combination of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, coroner reports, public record, and the personal testimony of farmers. Once the data is collected, the Agricultural Safety and Health program partners in research with undergraduate and graduate students and epidemiologists to help analyze the data and make it accessible. The data can be found on the Agricultural Safety and Health Program’s website, agsafety.osu.edu.

Jepsen’s other major area of research is on the effectiveness of safety solutions.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve quality of life,” she said, and, “we really want to make sure that what we recommend is effective,” especially because it is sometimes difficult to get farmers to accept changes they have not grown up around.

For Jepsen, knowledge is empowering. The statistics she collects sometimes paint a bleak picture, but as she says, “the good thing is we can actually make a difference and change the statistics if we acknowledge [the dangers inherent in farming and the importance of safety practices] and work to make a difference.”

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