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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

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

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.

Technology Solutions

McLaughlin says attitude also is a factor. "Farmers
often accept that their tasks will result in injury," she says.

Another risk factor is a strong urge to finish a task, often
circumventing safety measures. "When they mentioned near misses, we asked,
'What were you thinking?' " she says. "They said, 'I have to get the
job done now.' We don't know if it was a 10-minute or a 10-hour fix."

McLaughlin cites three psychological explanations for
seemingly risky attitudes:

  1. Optimism bias: They assume their approach is likely to
    succeed. "It may have worked before," she says.
  2. Third-person effect: They think they are less susceptible
    to hazards than others.
  3. Economics factor: They link safety-related choices to
    economics, as well as independence. "They may take a risk to prevent loss
    of income, but they discount the potential costs of an injury," she says.

McLaughlin says improved technology can play a greater role.
For instance, carbon monoxide detectors and grain-moisture sensors help keep
farmers out of harm's way. But she says older farmers don't place as much value
on technology-based safety systems, such as ROPS.

That puts the onus on engineers to use design to eliminate
hazards, simplify repairs, or cut the cost of safety shields. "We also
need farmers to help engineers and safety advocates devise practical solutions,"
McLaughlin says.

Top hazards, as seen by farmers

• Working alone

• Mowing (rollovers)

• Entanglement in the PTO

• Repairs to machinery

• Fumes (during work or repair)

• Distraction from other hazards

• Suffocation (grain entrapment)

• Power lines

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