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As our family prepared to celebrate the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I received several alerts of a grain bin entrapment in northwest Wisconsin that had occurred the day prior. I learned that responders worked for an hour to free the victim from hundreds of bushels of stored corn. Once freed, he was airlifted to a hospital in Minnesota and ultimately passed away.

This scene repeats itself at least a dozen times each year in Wisconsin. Data released in early 2018 showed 20 fatalities on Wisconsin crop, livestock and dairy farms in the most recent year summarized. As many as 10-20% of farms in states like Wisconsin will be the site of an injury that results in the need for medical care, downtime or other indicators of high injury severity. About 80% of these need some type of treatment in an ER, clinic or hospital.

For over 30 years, a big part of my job has included working with farmers, managers, workers, youth and family members on farm safety and occupational health in states that have included Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and others. We have made progress. Since the late 1980s, the “per capita” death rate among people working on farms has been cut in half.

Still, tragic events like the pre-holiday grain bin death up in Barron County continue.

It seems a good time as 2018 ends to reflect and discus “farm safety” in a place like Wisconsin. Agriculture is such a key part of our culture and our economy.  It might also be a good time to think about how we discuss, react to and work together to prevent tragedies.

I am an agricultural engineer—that means I think about how we can better “design” machines, workplaces and processes to make them safer for farmers. I also think it’s important to learn from and borrow lessons about what works (and what doesn’t work) from other industries.

Here’s an example that might be near and dear to those who fly to visit family and loved ones over the holidays — commercial airplanes. About 632 million people will climb aboard a U.S. flight this year.  Last year, NOBODY died in an airliner crash on American soil. Nobody has died in a crash for four years straight!

How does this relate to farm safety and deaths from farm injuries, grain bin suffocations, roadway crashes involving tractors and equipment? 

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Let’s go back to air travel and those 632 million people. Not everyone flies “regularly.” But, let’s assume one in 100 people do fly once a month or once a week. That’s still a big number (over six million).  If we apply the current fatality rate that we see among ag workers to those “frequent fliers” on commercial airplanes, we would witness 1,200 or more people die while flying over the U.S. each year. That’s three or four people a day—or 23 people a week. Think of the outcry and calls for change that would happen!

The reasons why flying across the country to do business or to visit family are so safe are many. It’s about technology, expectations, a culture of safety, not “taking off” from the runway if all safety systems are not in place and routine equipment maintenance. 

There is also the “regulation” factor and things like limiting the number of hours a pilot can fly in a given time period. Interestingly, several farm injury studies show a strong relationship between long work hours and injury risk. We also know that the “cost” of safety in the flight industry can be passed on directly to customers. We don’t have that luxury on farms.

After almost 33 years in farm safety, I don’t have all the answers. But I believe answers DO exist in our farming communities and organizations. We need to continue the critical conversations about what we consider to be “acceptable” versus “unacceptable” risk.  None of this is easy. Safety often costs money and takes time. Installing a ROPS on an old tractor does not come cheap. Making sure equipment is fully lit up like a Christmas tree any time you get onto a public highway takes an investment. Waiting until your kids are old enough to make smart decisions to operate equipment or be around large animals has a price. But, the families impacted by 11 documented farm workplace deaths thus far in 2018 have also paid an ultimate price with the loss of loved ones.  

Our work in Cooperative Extension has always been about encouraging change, innovation and helping people ask and address tough questions. As 2018 draws to a close, let’s work together to reflect on the further changes needed to improve safety and health on farms. It takes real effort, but we’re here to help!

John Shutske is the Extension Ag Safety & Health Specialist

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