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Farmers talk safety risks

CHERYL TEVIS 10/16/2012 @ 9:52am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

Technology may help farmers minimize the ever-present dangers. Easier could mean safer.

Reducing farming's top rank in occupational fatalities and injuries may seem as daunting as slowing methane gas release from fissures in the ocean floor.

But North Carolina State University researcher Anne McLaughlin wants to dive deep beneath the surface to delve into the human factors underlying agriculture's dismal safety record.

"Farmers tend to blame themselves," she says. "It keeps us from learning the details that underlie the behavior that caused the incident."

Much of her focus is on farmers over age 60. "They often work alone," McLaughlin says. "That's a risk factor. Expertise isn't a guarantee against injury."

She also wants to explore how technology interacts with safety. "Attention is limited," she says. "Research shows drivers using a hands-free phone are as prone to accidents as drivers using handheld phones. The challenge is designing an interface so it consumes less attention."

Data reveals safety risks

Working with colleague Christopher Mayhorn, McLaughlin used the Fatal Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) database to launch her voyage of discovery. They selected 382 fatal incidents, evaluating each one based on 100 variables. "Certain accidents stood out," she says.

Clothing entanglement in moving machinery was a distinct cluster, along with tractors on roadways. Asphyxia was less common, but still a significant occurrence.

Next, she and Mayhorn set up a focus group of North Carolina farmers, with a mean age of 52.6 years and an average 40 years of experience. The focus group singled out the following as serious risks:

  • Tractor rollovers. Farmers said mowing ditches is a specific hazard. "They also talked about sharing roads with nonfarm drivers who don't understand or know farm machinery," she says.
  • PTOs. "Farmers know the danger," she says. "But it's easy to ignore." Hazards are compounded when a shield is removed during repair, but it's not replaced. "Farmers also said they have to operate PTOs or machinery to see the problem," McLaughlin says.
  • Fumes. "Much of machinery repair and maintenance take place during winter in an enclosed shop, and the equipment produces carbon monoxide and other fumes," she says. Manure storage produces methane and hydrogen sulfide.
  • Suffocation. Flowing grain in bins and auger wagons is a recognized hazard.
  • Electrocution. Farmers are concerned about power lines, but data shows that electrocution occurs more often during equipment repair in a barn or shed.

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Andrew Bishop Another Top Hazard 11/07/2012 @ 10:23am My top hazard is motorists. I spend a lot of time moving between the home lot and fields on public roads. Motorists don't seem to know what hand signals are, and ignore them if they do. Every time I signal a left, at least one car/truck/SUV will pass me. August 30th my smallest tractor was hit by a pickup while I was about to make a left with blinkers on and my arm out signalling the left turn. I'm sure the alcohol smell on him didn't help his judgement any.) Obviously I survived, but it was the wildest ride of my life. I am now working on putting full automotive style brake/hazard/turn signal lights on the tractors (one more to go) and trailer tail lights on the wagons and trailed equipment. Hopefully if the lights the motorists see are what they see on cars, I won't get hit again.

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