Farmers talk safety risks
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.