In the past 20 years, there has been a lot written and spoken about farm safety.
In that time, many youths have made their way through the Wisconsin Tractor and Machinery Safety Certification Program or attended safety day camps. People sometimes ask if these types of efforts are providing a benefit. It's difficult, if not impossible, to measure the impact of farm safety education other than to document an increase in awareness or knowledge. How do you know if a person would have been injured or killed without their participation in a safety education program, be it for youths or adults?
When looking at farm fatalities, it takes a long time to be able to draw any firm conclusions as to whether progress is being made. Further, there are complicating factors such as changes in farm numbers and workers over time. Also, mechanization and technology may be taking people out of farm tasks that were once done manually. Finally, today's farm tractors and machines are safer than they've ever been.
Keeping the above factors in mind, it still seems like a good idea to analyze farm safety data and look for trends, both good and bad. The raw data is collected each year by the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health. During the past 17 years, 509 people lost their lives working on Wisconsin farms. The trendline tells us that farm fatalities in the state have decreased by about 0.9 fatalities per year over the 17 years. When dealing with fatalities, no news is good news, but at least the trendline isn't level or increasing. If you're more of a "raw numbers" sort of person, consider that the average number of fatalities was 36.6 in the five-year span from 1993-1997. In the most recent five years, the average was 24.8 fatalities. There's still plenty of work to be done and it's no reason for anyone to take their foot off the safety education gas pedal, but an encouraging trend.
What's killing people?
In addition to the total number of fatalities, there has also been an effort over the years to document what caused the death. The types of fatalities have not changed much over the years. Tractor accidents still account for the highest percentage of farm deaths at nearly 37% over the seventeen year period. Within this category, tractor rollovers were the cause in 53% of the fatalities. Runovers or falling from the tractor accounted for another 35% of the tractor-related deaths.
Farm machinery comprises the second largest cause of farm fatalities. Entanglements accounted for about one-third of the machinery-related deaths, as did being pinned by the machine. Runovers were the cause in another 15% of the machinery fatalities.
The next highest single category of fatalities is attributed to livestock at 10 percent. Animals are the leading cause of non-fatal injuries on Wisconsin farms. The remaining major causes of farm fatalities were falls (8%) and confined spaces (4%).
Who's getting killed?
Although the focus of farm safety education is often on youth, farmers and farm workers who were 45 years or older accounted for two-thirds of the total number of farm-related fatalities since 1993. Within this group, half of the fatalities were in the 65 years or older category. The remaining age group categories and corresponding fatality percentages were as follows: 0-9 years: 9.2%, 10-19 years: 8.6%, and 20-44 years: 17.5%.
The downward trend in farm fatalities can probably be attributed to a number of factors – educational efforts, safer machinery, mechanization, technology, etc. The fact remains that agriculture is still one of the most dangerous occupations in the world and all who are involved must continue to do all they can to minimize the number of fatal farm accidents.
Rankin is the Fond du Lac County Extension crops and soils agent.