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For farmers, harvest time poses greater safety threats

Director of Benton County ISU Extension Outreach Greg Walston says if someone falls into a grain bin, he or she easily can suffocate or suffer severe injuries if caught in the shute as the grain is being unloaded. He shows the grain that is used as part of demonstration to show the dangers of sinking into moving grain and suffocating, at the Benton County Fairgrounds in Vinton on Thursday, September 27, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Director of Benton County ISU Extension Outreach Greg Walston says if someone falls into a grain bin, he or she easily can suffocate or suffer severe injuries if caught in the shute as the grain is being unloaded. He shows the grain that is used as part of demonstration to show the dangers of sinking into moving grain and suffocating, at the Benton County Fairgrounds in Vinton on Thursday, September 27, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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Iowa farmers are approaching peak harvest season over the next several weeks, and the inherent dangers of the job become more acute because of it.

Charles Schwab, an Iowa State University professor focusing on farm safety, said almost a third of farm incidents happen in the peak harvest months of September, October and November, when producers are doing more tasks in their fields and doing it with greater urgency.

For example, farmers are more often driving combines and other machinery on public roads as they cross to a field across the street, turn around for another pass in the field or haul grain to a bin or elevator.

They also deal with more stress from running equipment for longer than usual, coordinating temporary farmhands and more issues that arise at a critical time in a farm operation’s season.

Greg Walston, Iowa State University Extension’s Benton County program director, said if someone falls into a grain bin, he or she easily can suffocate or suffer severe injuries if caught in the shute as the grain is being unloaded.

To demonstrate this to children during the Extension’s annual safety days, he uses a doll in a small-scale grain wagon filled with corn and opens the chute. The doll is engulfed in seconds, something Walston said can happen to adults working around industrial-size bins or elevators.

All those together, ISU’s Schwab said, could influence producers to skirt normal routines to save some time, putting them at unnecessary risk of injury.

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“People that have had injuries, they’ll tell you, ‘This one time I decided not to do something I wouldn’t normally do, and then the injury occurred,’” he said.

“One of the preventive strategies is, stick with your standard practices with how you approach equipment that has broken down or failed or how you make adjustments, do it the standard way and don’t let the pressures of the moment dictate your actions.”

How many farmers get hurt on the job? It depends

According to the Iowa Trauma Registry, just 2.7 percent of the 20,680 reported incidents in 2017 were farm-related, slightly higher than the 2.6 percent reported the year before.

The state’s data doesn’t fully encompass most agricultural injuries because of a lack of active surveillance and differing definitions of what a reportable injury is.

The Iowa Department of Public Health defines a reportable farm-related injury as one that occurs on a farm or in the process of doing farm tasks, such as hauling grain, and the injury was marked as a reportable trauma injury by a hospital emergency room.

That figure doesn’t include people who died in the field or on route to medical care.

Farm operations with 10 or fewer people employed also aren’t required to notify the Iowa Department of Public Health or federal authorities of an incident on the property.

Kathy Leinenkugel, a program manager at the department, said the state’s figures for all types of traumatic injuries are correct, but narrow.

“What’s reported is accurate if it fits the definition of the injuries you’re looking at,” she said. “If it’s the entire range of injuries, no. We know there’s a lot more injuries than that.”

According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19 people were killed while working in Iowa agriculture in 2016, out of 76 statewide. During that same time period, there were 7.5 reportable injuries per 100 agricultural workers in the state.

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Leinenkugel spends only part of her time surveying that industry after funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for fatality surveillance was cut in 2015. She said it’s unclear whether Iowa will have anyone monitoring any kind of workplace injuries and deaths as soon as July 2020, when the current round of federal funds expire.

That could lead to a less clear statistical picture of how dangerous farming can be.

“Without that (funding), because agriculture and construction both have such a high role in those fatalities here in Iowa, a lot of the individual owner-operator farmers and owner-operator construction companies kind of fall below the OSHA enforcement,” she said. “... We took it hard when we lost that federal funding.”

Stories of the injuries

The Telling The Story Project, based at the University of Iowa, is showing how dangerous one momentary lapse of caution can be by using stories of Midwest farmers who made those mistakes themselves — with some living to tell the tale, and other stories told by their surviving family and friends. The project can be read at telingthestoryproject.org.

Project collaborator and occupational safety manager Stephanie Leonard said the project, a joint venture among safety experts at the UI, University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Minnesota that began publishing in early 2018, sends interviewers to have farmers recount their brushes with injuries on the job.

The project already has produced accounts of, among others, a farmer from Cherokee, who had to drag himself — using only his arms — to his home after his all-terrain vehicle rolled over; a Muscatine County farmer who lost his left arm at age eight when it was caught in a grinder-mixer; and a Wisconsin cattle farmer who died in 2016 after he accidentally inhaled large amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas from a manure pit.

The goal, Leonard said, is to promote farm safety measures and put a face and a story to the injury statistics.

“It’s not a remote number, it’s someone like you or in your community,” she said.

“We need to make sure they are being productive and staying alive.”

For non-farmers that encounter producers on the road in the next few months, Schwab suggests drivers give plenty of space to farmers operating equipment near roads, especially if their machines are oddly shaped and jut into another lane, or the road shoulder isn’t wide enough for those machines to pull over on.

But what’s most important for him is that someone doesn’t lose his or her life or ability to farm unnecessarily.

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“This is an industry that produces our food and fiber, and we’re having these individuals suffering these injuries that can be permanent, can be a complete loss, meaning we lose the talent and the ability to produce these materials,” he said.

“A large percentage of us are looking to eat or use the things they produce, so we need to make sure they are being productive and staying alive.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; dan.mika@thegazette.com

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