Wisconsin Farm-Related Fatality Report resurrected, offers data on ag deaths

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Kyle Lammers repairs an electric fence Friday, Jan 19, 2018, in Hartington, Neb. In November of 1998, Lammers lost his left arm in a farming accident when he was 13 years old.

The Wisconsin Farm-Related Fatality Report, which was inactive between 2006 and 2020, is now being updated again to offer insight on the state's ag-related deaths.

The report said Wisconsin farm fatalities reached 41 in 2017 and 34 in 2018, a rise from the last report, which claimed 25 deaths in 2006. Researchers Bryan Weichelt and John Shutske recently resurrected the annual report, which was not updated for 14 years. 

In both years, a significant amount of these deaths resulted from public roadway crashes – 29% of the total 34 deaths in 2018 resulted from passenger car crashes with farm equipment, like tractors, or farm animals, on public roads. Other causes of death included fire, falls, blunt trauma (like falling trees or equipment) and machine entanglements, which were the second-highest at 5 deaths.

The 2018 report also said out of the 34 deaths, 24 occurred during farm production work, 8 during a roadway collision, and 1 each during agricultural support incidents and farm hazards to non-workers. Clark County had three fatalities, the most of any county, while several other counties had one and two, although more than half of Wisconsin counties recorded no farm fatalities.

Most of the victims in 2018 data were male, 85% to 15% female. Half of the fatalities were also over the age of 65, which researchers said may have happened due to lowered response time because of age. Just under 60% of fatalities were farmers or farm hands, although four deaths resulted from manufacturing. 

Weichelt, an associate research scientist with many rural ag safety and medicine groups including the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute, said the 14-year gap in data was due to limited funds in the UW system and a lack of staff to continue analyzing accidents. Despite the dormancy, he said he's working to improve how we look at the data.

"It's always a struggle to look at things like this, particularly when you have a gap like this, and also when you have old-school methods," Weichelt said. "In this case, we now also include public roadways, so it's not always apples to apples."

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Weichelt, who is a fifth-generation dairy farmer, said the safety issues on farms could continue to get worse if commodity prices and farmer income stay low. Despite there being 2 million farms in the US, many of them can't afford to buy new equipment that comes with safeguards, like rollover protections on tractors, when older equipment is cheaper and still widely available. This older equipment is also dangerous on public roadways because they don't have high-visibility markings or lights. He said farmers should light up their tractors "like a Christmas tree."

Yearly fatalities and serious injuries may also be a result of a lack of training or awareness, especially for new hobby farmers, Weichelt said. The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which handles workplace safety, is also largely absent on Wisconsin farms because those with 10 or less employees that are not family are not subject to OSHA regulations. Only 2.2% of Wisconsin's 64,900 farms have enough employees to qualify for OSHA regulation. Weichelt said a stronger focus on training certification programs could help prevent some of these accidents.

"There are some training programs available, certainly tractor safety certification programs through local 4-H clubs for youth to go through tractor safety training. I highly recommend that," Weichelt said.

Register by July 14 for  UW-Extension of Marinette and Oconto Counties tractor and machinery safety certification course for youth.

While the data for 2019 and 2020 haven't come together just yet, Weichelt said there could be a rise in child fatalities on family farms this year because kids are home much more often than they ordinarily would be and thus subject to more frequent dangerous farm environments. Even tractor rides, where a child normally wouldn't use a seatbelt, can be very dangerous if a rollover happens, he said. Pool drownings and ATV accidents could also see increases.

The study specifically emphasized a call for increased safety training and awareness on tractors, especially since some incidents the researchers decided not to include in the data happened on tractors although they could not be verified as farm-related. The study said compact tractors are becoming more popular with rural farmers, but they also pose serious safety risks to those who don't know how to operate them properly.

"These cases emphasize the need for continued and improved tractor safety initiatives that include populations not traditionally considered part of the agricultural workforce," the report stated.

Shutske, an extension specialist and professor in several ag health and safety programs at University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it's important to remember that these aren't just statistics – every number represents a real person, someone's parent or child. He said he hopes farmers have a self-interest in preserving farm safety and preventing accidents. Growing up as a child on a farm himself, Shutske said he knew people who wore farm injuries, like a missing limb, as a badge of honor.

"It was just accepted ... as part of being a farmer. That's just the risk that you face," Shutske said. "I think one of the paradigms that has shifted in the last 30 years is people have said, like, 'No, we don't have to accept that.' With children, especially, there has been a huge focus on child safety on farms."

Shutske said there has been slow progress in farm fatality prevention in recent years, especially in the area of technology. While new farm equipment is becoming smarter and safer, we also have to figure out how to make it financially viable for smaller farms. It shouldn't just be the farmers making those decisions either, but also the machinery dealers and manufacturers, he said.

"Machinery manufacturers are keenly aware, and the newer equipment that's out there is much better designed," Shutske said. "It's harder to take apart equipment. It's harder to take shields off, and when you do have to remove a shield, oftentimes it's removable in a way that it's very easily reinstalled."

Shutske said even though this particular report wasn't updated for many years, Ag Injury News, an online compilation of media reports documenting farm-related accidents, has served as a good resource for finding recorded fatalities and other injury cases to include in the Wisconsin Farm-Related Fatality Report.

Jerry Minor, a firefighter and first responder with Pittsville Fire Company, said responding to farm injuries can be very difficult if the responders aren't familiar with the farm layout. Farm injuries are also often complex because one injury usually leads to other injuries – for instance, if someone gets their foot caught in a corn picker, the reaction may lead to another limb getting caught, Minor said.

Ideally, someone with these kinds of injuries should get to an emergency room within an hour of the accident (called the "golden hour"), but in rural areas it usually takes much longer to respond, leading to a higher chance of death, Minor said. He added that these injuries may not be discovered immediately either, and with enough time lapsing between the incident and emergency response, it could leave little chance of survival.

"I don't want to say that (farming) has become more dangerous," Minor said. "(But) now we have equipment that runs ten times faster in speed than it did in 1972. The speed of the machine has increased significantly, and that poses a threat to the operator."

Ten-year-old Jacob Mosbacher guides a tractor through a bean field on his grandparents' property near Fults, IL. Data shows a greater risk of injury to young children on farms.

Minor said some Wisconsin fire departments, including Pittsville, are training for these exact kinds of responses in a program called Rural Firefighters Delivering Agricultural Safety and Health. He said RF-DASH allows farmers and firefighters to create plans for a potential emergency, where the fire department will have on file information about the farm's layout, equipment and placement of certain dangerous areas, like manure pits, which emit methane, hydrogen sulfide and other toxic gases.

RF-DASH includes a scoring component, where firefighters will rate the farm on safety in different categories and offer ways to make safety corrections, like auditing farm equipment and pointing out hazards that the farmer may not even know exist. The Marshfield Clinic Research Institute also provides a program called Farm Mapping to Assist, Protect and Prepare Emergency Responders, which serves as a tool to map out every acre of a farm so first responders can guide themselves to the scene of an accident and know what to expect.

"In case there's a fire, we can pre-plan how much water we're going to need, who's your utility providers ... all those things are identified in MAPPER," Minor said. "The whole intent of MAPPER was and is pre-planning a farm. Together we work out and try to create safer farms."

Minor said most farmers can take care of common injuries on their own without a need for help, but when they do get a call, it's an indication of a very serious situation. He said the best thing people can do when they call 911 is to be as specific as possible with the dispatcher, since an accident can happen anywhere on a farm that may have tens or hundreds of acres.

Make sure you give the correct address and let them know if off-road vehicles will be needed, because ambulances and firetrucks don't travel well over crop fields. The better description of the issue, the better they will know how to respond to the situation, Minor said. He added that being trained in first aid is also very helpful in case CPR is needed, or to control bleeding.

The study claimed that workers in agriculture, as well as forestry and fishing, are up to eight times more likely to die on the job than in other occupations. The study also cited a 2001 study that said the national average cost of farm-related injuries was $4.57 billion, 30% more than the national average for other occupations. The researchers also wrote that they did not include farmer suicides in the data.

"These events are not included in the data described here," the study read. "This is not surprising given the relatively high rate of suicide deaths among farmers as has recently been described by (Centers for Disease Control) as well as media accounts. Authors are investigating the needs for further analysis of Wisconsin farm suicide events."