By John Shutske
Farming ranks as the most dangerous industry in the U.S., with a yearly death rate of 20.4 farm work-related deaths for every 100,000 workers — six times higher than the combined average for all U.S. workers, according to the National Safety Council. The most recent farm fatality count in Wisconsin, released in late 2016 by the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, showed 26 farmers, employees or family members died in 2015 from farm work-related causes.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that 100 agriculture workers experience a lost-time injury each day. A telephone-based survey of nearly 4,000 farm households in the Midwest several years ago showed that an injury occurs on almost one in five Wisconsin farms each year; more than 80% of these require medical care.
Making a difference
Over the past 30 years, efforts by the ag industry, media, and groups such as Extension, nonprofits and governmental agencies have contributed to a decline in the number of fatalities; in 1987, the fatality rate was 53 per 100,000.
The University of Wisconsin Center for Agricultural Safety and Health works with local educators, farmers, health professionals and key partners in the public and private sectors to provide education, technical consultation and guidance to community and industry leaders who share the goal of reducing the burden of agricultural injury and disease for Wisconsin.
“We’re fortunate here in Wisconsin to have many individuals involved in a variety of safety and health programs,” says Cheryl Skjolaas, Extension agricultural safety specialist at UW-Madison.
Some recent agricultural safety and health trainings have included:
• manure gas safety, monitoring and management
• managing safety, health and decision-making impacts associated with farm stress
• caring for farm families — the health professionals’ role in farm safety and health
• youth tractor and machinery safety certification
Here are four things that can make a difference still this fall season, when agricultural work is at its peak:
1. Learn about important safety and health issues that Wisconsin farmers and farmworkers face. Resources include the Wisconsin Agricultural Health and Safety website and the national “eXtension” Ag Safety and Health resource center.
2. Slow down and watch carefully on roadways for slow-moving farm machines and implements of husbandry. If you are moving farm equipment on roads, make sure all lighting and markings are up to current state law requirements and are clearly visible and functional. Check out these current requirements.
3. Spend a few dollars to invest in an appropriate array of personal protective equipment, including safety glasses, hearing protection and gloves. The right safety gear is important for every size of farm, as well as for people with small parcels of land and homeowners doing routine yard work.
4. Make sure all workers are fully qualified and provided with constantly updated training and demonstration to do their job safely. Even experienced workers need adequate supervision and oversight. Since youth are at especially high risk for farm injury, know the laws and regulations for younger workers, and check out these guidelines for children and teens working on farms.
Beware of danger
Fall is a high-risk time as harvest operations ramp up quickly. In Wisconsin, the window is always tight to get forages, corn, soybeans and other crops harvested and put into storage. That urgency and time pressure contributes to mistakes that often lead to injuries or even death. Machinery plays a major factor in serious farm injuries. Here are some ways to put safety into practice:
• The best way to prevent harvest season injuries is to invest prep time to get your equipment and storage structures ready for the busy season. Adjustments and maintenance that improve safety also can also help maximize the quality and value of your crop. Many terrible farming injuries happen when a breakdown occurs. People get super-stressed or frustrated and then do something they know might be dangerous.
• As a farm owner, manager or operator, think of your role the same way an airplane pilot or race car driver does. That means you need to establish something like a pre-flight or pre-race checklist — a run-through and shakedown to make sure all systems are “go.”
• Consult your operator’s manuals. Are shields or guards in place on tractors, choppers, blowers, wagons, combines and augers? Replace any questionable hydraulic hoses, and determine the status of any bearings and belts that you know might need to be repaired during the season.
• Preventive maintenance on storage structures and their associated machinery or equipment is important. It’s easier to do repair on a silo unloader at ground level than on top of a filled silo. Check fixed ladders on grain bins or upright silos that may have rusted or loosened over the year. Walk around horizontal silo walls checking for cracks, and repair as needed.
• Make sure to carry a fully charged 10-pound ABC dry chemical fire extinguisher on all machines, including trucks. Train people on how to properly use the fire extinguisher and when to call the fire department. Keep a first-aid kit or safety supplies in field vehicles and farm buildings. Post a list of addresses as directions to various field locations.
Minimizing the time you spend on the highway is always the best way to reduce hazard levels. However, that’s often not practical. Plan highway travel whenever possible to avoid busy or high traffic times, including the early morning commute and the rush to school. Evening times are also high risk as people are in a hurry to get home from work or school and the sun gets low in the sky.
With fewer daylight hours upon us, make sure slow-moving vehicle emblems and other extremity markings are bright and clean. Replace any markings that are faded or missing. Daily check that warning lights, including flashers and beacon lamps as well as headlights, are fully operational. Remember, field lights or any white light to the rear are not for highway use. Make sure you fully understand and comply with all other state and local lighting, marking, width and weight limit laws. Follow the rules of the road and remember to warn motorists of your intent to turn by using signal lights or hand signals.
Many farms have additional hired workers to assist with harvest. As an employer, spend time with these workers. Talk about your safety expectations. The same is true if you’re hiring custom harvest work. Discuss your operation’s safety practices with the custom harvest operators. Small things like discussing travel routes and speed for custom equipment as well as your daily equipment operation reduces stress for every operator.
A safe harvest requires a little extra effort on a daily basis. In the end, the payoff can be significant when there are no injuries or downtime during the harvest season.
Shutske is director of the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health and is an Extension agricultural engineering specialist.