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Long hours hauling liquid manure call for care, safety, vigilance

Jan Shepel
This time of year one of the big projects for farmers or for hired manure applicators is to get that liquid manure spread on the open corn and soybean fields. Here an applicator uses a dragline to spread and inject manure.

DE FOREST - As farmers across the state clear their corn and soybean fields, those with livestock may list the next job on their “to-do” list as spreading manure. For livestock operations with larger numbers of animals, that fall project may include liquid manure. Spreading those liquid nutrients effectively and efficiently should be done with safety in mind says one man who has made manure spreading and farm safety his life’s work.

Rick Martens, executive director of the Minnesota Custom Applicators Association travels the country trying to help farmers and hired manure applicators change their perspective on safety. He’s got nearly 35 years experience in the business – his family’s business is Martens Manurigation — and he’s learned a thing or two he wants others to be aware of.

He lost his brother in a farm accident and could have lost his father in another. “The windows when this work needs to get done are getting smaller. We always have to work faster and put in longer hours. There’s so much to get done,” he said.

Martens said he understands that the pressures of getting the work done can come at the expense of safety. Accidents happen when people work too long and get too tired. When he talks to farmers and applicators he stresses power-take-off (PTO) and dragline safety and keeping an eye on those they are working with. He doesn’t want anyone to “become a statistic.”

Most are preventable

“Accidents can happen to anybody but most are preventable. People make mistakes, forget things, do things we shouldn’t, do things in the wrong order. We get distracted. We get overloaded,” he says. “And there’s always so much to get done.”

He encourages those who are overseeing the work of others to watch their employees for signs of fatigue and he urges everyone involved in fall field work, including manure spreading, to stop and think about what they’re doing. “Take a little bit of time to think about what’s going to happen.”

Martens said that younger people tend to think they can do anything, which can get them into trouble. They may think they can step over a driveline or ignore a safety practice. If they run out of luck and get injured it can lead to fractures, lacerations, spinal cord injuries and amputations — or worse.

Operators should identify and try to eliminate as many hazards as possible on their equipment. “With manure handling there’s always a shaft powering some piece of equipment. Make sure all the safety shields are in place.”

A safety shield for a PTO driveline costs anywhere from $95-$135 and is cheap compared to an emergency room visit or the death of a person, he says.

Growing up in the business — his family were pioneers in the pumping of manure through hoses — Martens knew of others who had been injured on farms and in manure applicator businesses. “This is real life. This isn’t something that’s made up in books,” he says.

Hours can be long and people get tired. One veteran manure hauler urges operators to think about safety and take a break to stay safe and be more efficient.

His checklist of questions for workers and farmers is this:

  • What are you thinking about?
  • What are you wearing? Clothes should be in good repair and tucked in place so they don’t end up entangled in a driveline.
  • Who or what is around you? Are there children, animals, teenagers around – all of which could end up involved in an accident.
  • Is a unit running unattended? “The last thing you want to do is walk back up to your work site and find there’s been an accident with an unattended piece of equipment.”

Martens encourages operators to be alert and aware of what’s going on around them and to think about what could go wrong.

Nearly a statistic

His father, Gary, was nearly a statistic when he was operating a remote pumping station for liquid manure. “Dad was at the boost pump a mile away and he was hand-running the pump when a coupler failed,” he recalls.

The force of the blasting manure knocked him off his feet, stripped his legs out from under him and he was lying on the ground alone, with the pump still gushing. Somehow he managed to drag himself to the truck and called his son. They later found out that his leg was broken.

“I cleaned him up the best I could at the milkhouse and hauled him into the emergency room but he still smelled pretty bad. The nurses and doctors had to take turns working on him. That’s real life. It could’ve been far worse than it was,” Martens recalls.

That accident was a case in point, he says, in thinking about design. “If you’re building or buying equipment make sure it’s safe. The control panel and the hose coupler were right next to each other and that led to my dad’s accident.” After that accident the Martens moved the controls to the opposite side of the boost pump.

It’s also very important to have the tractor sized properly since many accidents and injuries come from hoses bursting or connections failing. Sudden impact with the hose can be deadly to a person standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“The mindset of ‘hurry up, get things done’ leads people to increase the pressure and increase the volume,” he said.

Know when it's time to shut down

And fatigue is a constant danger. “It kills and maims as well as damaging equipment and property. If we’re pushing ourselves to the bitter end it’s not the most efficient thing to do. Take a break. Take a nap and you’ll be more efficient.”

He watches his employees and “if they start to not make sense” they need to take a break. Even with auto-steer or auto-guidance equipment operators can become too tired to go on. “If your head is banging on the steering wheel because you’re too tired — it’s time to take a break.”