Farm safety needs to be top priority; agriculture, including forestry, is a dangerous job
Farming is a dangerous profession, something that Regina Cullen with the N.C. Department of Labor is reminded of regularly. Cullen is the department’s Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau chief and her office investigates reportable farming accidents.
Just about every year, Cullen said, her office sees at least one fatality due to an accident involving a tobacco harvester. The sad part of that sobering statistic is that “I believe they are all preventable,” she said.
Injuries are not just limited to tobacco harvesters. Augers, balers, combines, tobacco boxes are other pieces of equipment that are commonly involved in injuries.
Accident Hits Close to Home
Earlier this year, Kirk Mathis, a Wilkes County farmer and member of the N.C. Board of Agriculture, saw the effects of a farming accident firsthand when he responded to an incident involving a hay baler as a firefighter with his local volunteer fire department. The farmer survived, but lost part of his arm.
Mathis said he has seen accidents before involving tractors that have rolled over, but it was the first time in 15 years with the fire department he had seen one involving a hay baler. It has made him give more thought to farm safety, and champion the message that farmers need to be extra vigilant when working around these large and powerful pieces of equipment.
“As a firefighter, there are two calls you don’t want to hear come across the fire pager – a disc mower accident or a round baler accident – because those are normally fatal,” Mathis said.
His message to other farmers is straightforward: “Cut this equipment off. Don’t work on it while it is running. No, no, no, no, no, never do that. Cut the durn machine off. There’s no need to leave it running.”
Mathis’ story is way too similar to ones Cullen hears in her job. Stories of workers hurrying to harvest a crop, reaching into a running machine with a stick, a pole or their hand to loosen jammed tobacco, hay or other material. “We hear it all the time, [people say] ‘I’ve done it a hundred times,’ or ‘I am in a hurry,’” she said.
Those decisions can lead to fatal consequences.
The N.C. Department of Labor investigated seven agricultural and forestry fatalities in 2012, nine in 2013, three in 2014 and six in 2015, but those likely were not the only accidents that occurred during that time.
Under the law, only farms with 10 or more employees, or that use H2A workers or provide migrant housing, are required to report fatal accidents. Some fatalities go unreported because of the size of the farm or if it is a family business, Cullen said.
Nationally in 2014, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting posted the highest rate of fatal work injuries of any industry group, with 24.9 fatalities per every 100,000 full-time employees, according to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And those numbers do not reflect the number of accidents like the one Mathis responded to that result in the loss of limbs or other injuries.
LaMar Grafft, associate director of the N.C. Agromedicine Institute at East Carolina University who has worked on farmer safety issues for 20 years, added that “agriculture is the most dangerous occupation in the United States. It is eight times the average of all other occupations.” Nationally, about 450 people are lost each year in farming accidents.
Farmers today are working with much more powerful equipment, which is good in a production sense, but adds to the risk factor, Grafft said.
“PTO shafts turn at 540 revolutions per minute, or nine times per second. It takes three-fourths of a second for a person to realize when there’s a problem,” he said. “They have already been pulled around the shaft six times before their brain even recognizes that they are caught.
“When I was a kid we had less powerful equipment and clothes weren’t as good, so it was a frequent occurrence for a farmer to get all his clothes ripped off,” Grafft said. “Now clothes are stronger and equipment more powerful, so now it is more common for it to pull people into the equipment or take off a limb.”
And familiarity tends to lead to complacency when it comes to safety around machinery, Grafft added. “People don’t necessarily have a close call or something that gets their attention before a fatality occurs. The close call may be the time you get killed.”
It all reinforces the need to remain diligent in worker safety training and to stay focused on safe operation of equipment at all times, Cullen said.
In investigating accidents, Cullen said some of the most common findings are misuse of equipment, failure to properly train workers, failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment, failure to recognize the symptoms of heat stroke or stress, and getting in a hurry and bypassing safety measures such as not using seatbelts on tractors.
Cullen offers the following safety reminders:
- Review safety measures regularly and make sure workers are trained on the specific piece of equipment they will be using;
- If roll-over protection equipment is present, always use it, including seat belts;
- Do not disable safety mechanisms such as dead man’s switches, which will automatically cut off machinery when an operator leaves the machinery seat;
- Provide adequate water throughout the day, even at the end of the day;
- Make sure portable toilets are available and properly maintained.
Something else farmers may want to consider is adding reflective 911 address signs at the end of roads to help responders find where they are going as quickly as possible in the event of an accident, Mathis said.
When seconds count in terms of response times, navigating remote areas of a field to find an injured worker can present challenges, Mathis said.
“Most operational county communications centers can locate you, but your issue as a first responder or a firefighter is how to drive through the property to get to where an injured person is,” he said. “Timing is everything. If it’s a heart attack or stroke, you have a window of time to get there to help the person.”
Farming accidents and fatalities can have long-reaching effects on families, a consideration that Cullen hopes may help influence more attention to safety.
“In the aftermath, there is sorrow and loss along with the trauma of an accident,” she said. “Everyone talks about the trauma of an accident. People have to pick up and go on after it, and you often underestimate the psychological loss.”
Farmers can find publications outlining safety and inspection requirements at www.nclabor.com/pubs.htm and additional information at www.nclabor.com/ash/ash.htm.