Resolutions for a safer 2018 on Wisconsin farms

John Shutske
Extension Ag Safety/Health
Farm accidents and deaths are all too common in the agricultural industry.

I grew up a typical kid on a family farm in Indiana. In mid-1985, after a few years at Purdue University’s College of Ag, I decided that my calling was a career in farm safety education and research. I wanted to help people like my parents and the farmers I’d worked for since my junior high days, doing chores, driving a tractor, and baling hay.

I had done some Extension work at Purdue, where I developed blueprints to help farmers with disabilities modify buildings and equipment to make their work easier. I’d also investigated a few tragic farm deaths. The most vivid was a case my advisor often talked about – a Midwest couple working together to move a portable grain auger who were both electrocuted as the auger’s spout contacted an overhead powerline.

He talked of how their young children watched from the front window of the house as this tragedy happened.

John Shutske

Fast forward 32 years. Nationally, we’ve almost cut the death rate (number of work-related deaths per 100,000 workers) in half. Yet, there is still overwhelming tragedy for the families and communities who are affected when farm work-related deaths and injuries happen, even though they happen less often.

For many of those 32 years, I’ve ended the year reflecting on things that have happened – good and bad.  With my work, I’ve tried to think about how we can continue to help Wisconsin agricultural communities, farmers and employees make things safer.

Lives forever changed

I just completed a readthrough of the 2017 farm-work deaths in Wisconsin. I used an online database created by our colleagues at the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield. It’s only very late December, so it will take a few weeks for complete information, but up through the early December, Wisconsin had 22 deaths directly or indirectly involving the farm workplace. Of those, 17 were male and five were female.  Nine were age 60 or older. We lost two children under age five.

Incidents that referenced machines, tractors, ATVs and utility vehicles accounted for half (11) of the deaths. Seven fatalities involved roadway collisions between a farm implement or tractor and a motor vehicle. One incident claimed the lives of three passengers of an SUV who collided with a grain combine as it left a field. We’ve made some progress, BUT, the lives of the families of these 22 people are forever changed.

Gases in manure containment facilities can be deadly in a matter of minutes.

So, what do we do?  How can we make 2018’s count be 15? Or 10? Or, wouldn’t zero be awesome?

First, progress will take commitment and action. Here’s an example, there’s a national organization that’s been working on agricultural machinery and equipment safety for the last 110 years. It’s called the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). 

Over many years, ASABE has developed standards and best-practices for things like rollover protection for tractors, slow moving vehicle emblems, equipment lighting and marking, and practices to improve safety around built manure storage structures.

One example where we might make some headway is to examine at both the farm and state levels how we might better apply long-accepted ASABE standards for tractor other farm implement “lighting and marking.”  Federal law mandates compliance with ASABE standards on newer equipment.

This photo taken May 31, 2017, shows Aaron Yoder, right, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Central States Center for Ag Safety and Health in Omaha, giving backing up advice to Alex Bartlett, 14, of Cozad, Neb., during a tractor driving test on the Buffalo County Fairgrounds. (Lori Potter /The Daily Hub via AP)

But, I still see many tractors, implements, and combines out there in my travels with faded SMV emblems (or missing), or equipment being moved in the late evening without flashing lights that can be seen from several hundred yards back.  If you’re driving a faster-moving vehicle and encounter a large farm machine that is tough or impossible to see, you may as well be driving toward a brick wall.

Doing better in 2018

Here are a few other areas where we might be able to do better in 2018. 

• Engineers, like those we teach in my home department here at UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, absolutely must continue to improve farm safety through new designs.

• Machinery dealers should make it easier to purchase important safety upgrades (perhaps taking full advantage of discounts and other incentives).

• Farmers need seasonal reminders of the health and safety dangers in confined spaces such as grain bins, silos and manure pits.

• Health professionals and veterinarians must use their ‘aura of professional credibility’ to educate about safety.

• Farm suppliers must stock the right array of critical personal protective equipment including safety glasses, respirators, clothing and gloves.

• Agricultural association and business leaders must be role models, instilling a sense that this problem does not have to be part of farming.

• Anyone who hires any employee to do farm work must provide excellent training and appropriate supervision (in a language that the employee understands with clarity).

• Parents and other caregivers must understand that a farm is a dangerous industrial workplace — and that they must do everything in their power to protect the lives of children who live on and visit farms.

With continued commitment, and specific actions, let’s resolve to make 2018, Wisconsin agriculture’s safest year on record!

Shutske is a professor and Extension Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist