The director of a new safety initiative at the University of Nebraska Medical Center expects its attention to such agricultural hazards as dust, noise and sleep deprivation to strike a blow against the deaths and injuries that make farming the most dangerous occupation in the United States.
The Lincoln Journal Star reports that Risto Rautiainen of the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health in Omaha isn’t satisfied with statistics that show a decrease in fatalities nationally from 3,300 in the 1960s to 550 in 2011.
“No, I think we need to make a lot more progress,” said Rautiainen, who has a Ph.D. in occupational and environmental health and about a dozen team members who devote all or much of their time to farm safety issues.
Omaha is the newest of nine regional centers that recently earned praise from an independent review that cited them as a low-budget, high-impact way to make the lives of farm and ranch families safer. Their work, also aimed at risks to rural kids, is under the organizational umbrella of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
In Nebraska, 15 to 20 people die in farm accidents every year. With 60 to 70 industries taken into account, “that’s the biggest group,” Rautiainen said, “and truck drivers on the interstate are the other big group.”
Tractors with rollover protection, shields on moving machinery parts and growing safety awareness are among the reasons the toll of deaths and injuries is in decline. But it isn’t hard to find crop and livestock producers in Southeast Nebraska who have had firsthand experience with serious accidents.
Jon Propst’s father broke his hip, suffered other serious injuries and spent 39 days in the hospital when he got entangled in a power take-off shaft near Seward in the 1960s.
Much more recently, Rod Hollman of Martell had an unpleasant encounter with an Angus cow and her strong mothering instinct.
“Just last spring, I was tagging a baby calf,” Hollman said, “and the cow got behind me and knocked me through a barbed wire fence.”
A log of accidents kept by the safety and health center for its seven-state territory – Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri – tracks mayhem in thumbnail descriptions like this one:
“28-FEB-12 Crete, male, 33, fatal . Entangled in sweep auger within grain bin on family farm.”
Propst and Hollman agree farming isn’t as dangerous as it was decades ago.
“Equipment manufacturers have seen how farmers get hurt, and they’ve addressed those problems quite a bit,” said Propst, also a rural firefighter and first responder to medical emergencies.
In his area, he said, “There’s not been a major farm accident that I can think of in 10 years.”
But the occupational niche farmers occupy presents some special challenges, and environmental hazards such as inhaling dust are among them.
Todd Wyatt, core director for research at the safety center, said the hog producers of a generation ago didn’t work in confinement barns “and they didn’t spend all day long with the pigs.”
Now that they do, “components from dust in the swine barn actually slows down the cilia,” the tiny hair-like projections that protect nasal passages and other parts of the respiratory system.
Working in confined settings, on steep terrain, with augers, agricultural chemicals and unpredictable livestock, on top of and inside grain bins – and working alone in remote settings – are risk factors that aren’t overcome easily.
Plus, Propst said, farmers are responsible for more acres.
“We’ve got more to do so we’re in a bigger hurry.”
Roger Hoy, director of the tractor testing lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said there was a new problem to contend with, too – boredom.
“Before we had all these computers, farmers would actually drive the tractor.”
Now, because of global positioning systems, he said, “a good portion of the time, a farmer is only there in case something goes wrong or to turn the tractor around at the end of a row.”
Since the mid-1980s, rollover protection has been standard on new tractors. But surveys suggest many of the tractors still performing farm chores are from as far back as the 1930s and 1940s.
“A lot of those tractors are still running, and there’s no rollover protection on them,” Hoy said.
Part of the injury surveillance evidence accumulating at the agricultural safety center in Omaha, Director Rautiainen said, points to the absence on farms and ranches of safety standards enforced in ag business settings by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Farmers working alone,” he said, “nobody telling them what to do, many times take a risk that, in other industries, wouldn’t be done.”
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