By Marybeth Vargha
I married a vegetable farmer twenty years ago and through that time have seen the trials and tribulations of the farming life. There were mishaps, breakdowns and natural disasters but we only suffered minor health problems and injuries. Then I started a new job at the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH). My work experiences so far have opened my eyes to how to take safety more seriously on the farm.
Every day we hear about deaths and serious injuries that happen on every type of farm in the Northeast. We hear about chronic occupational illnesses that incapacitate people who have worked hard for years keeping their farm going. I understood that farmers sacrifice a lot to see their dreams realized but then I learned how quickly those dreams disappear when there is an accident or illness.
At NYCAMH we work with all sizes of farms from the 2,000 cow dairies to the market growers. Larger farm businesses, defined as 11 or more non-family employees, are governed by OSHA safety regulations and can be inspected. I feel that it is the smaller farms, outside of the regulations, where a greater awareness of hazards in the workplace is needed.
This message came home to us when a neighbor died in a farm accident last winter. Whenever someone spoke about what happened, it was always followed with ‘it could have been me’. A retired farmer we know listed 30 times he probably should have been badly hurt or killed during his career. People shared unimaginable stories of close calls with running PTO’s, tractor rollovers, being overcome by manure gases, almost caught in augers, angry bulls and so much more.
Our farm is probably more typical of small farms in the northeast – our tractors and equipment are older and smaller (antique even), we keep some animals (including a young bull sometimes). We only hire part-time help in the summer, and there is a lot of diversity in the work (from field cover crops to hand weeding to pruning fruit trees to cutting wood).
Tractors are the leading cause of death on farms and the leading cause of tractor deaths are side and rear overturns. Another neighbor of ours died in a tractor rollover just when he was about to retire. He had cut hay on the same field for so many years no one could imagine his tractor would flip.
There is a straightforward engineered solution to this problem which effectively prevents 99% of deaths or serious injuries on tractors – Rollover Protective Structure (ROPS). Since 1983, rollover bars with seatbelts were made mandatory on all newly manufactured tractors. The current issue is how to retrofit older tractors with a ROPS.
Safety Services for Your Farm
The New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health serves all farms in New York offering safety training to farm managers, employees, youth and agricultural organizations. NYCAMH is supported by New York State Department of Labor and New York State Department of Health with a variety of other grants which support specific projects, like the New York Farm Viability Institute support for the Dairy Safety Program. NYCAMH provides occupational health screenings which includes skin cancer, vision, hearing, cholesterol, blood pressure, pulmonary function, and respirator fit testing. The Farmers’ Clinic provides provider services through Bassett Clinic in Cooperstown. Farm Partners is available to assist farmers with access to social services.
On our farm, we’ve always found great older tractors with a lot of years left in them. We haven’t needed to upgrade, but we do need to add a ROPS to one of them. Even though it’s only used on the flat field, my husband does see that in soft ground by the stream it could tip over. Through the NY State funded rebate program, we’re hoping to get a ROPS soon.
From the NYCMAH surveillance of non-fatal farming incidents, most of the injuries come from tractor/machinery accidents and animal interactions. In a New York ten county study of non-fatal injuries between 2007 and 2009, hospital records showed that of the 4,004 farm related incidents, 22% were related to agricultural machinery, 18% animals, and 15% falls.
But when you look through the details of all these injuries, there are no clear patterns. The injuries cannot necessarily be prevented through engineering. The incidents were unique to a situation and the pattern seems to be about farmer behavior and risk taking. There is a safety pyramid illustrating the ratio of serious accidents and near misses. For each death on the job, there are 30 lost work cases, 300 injuries, 3,000 near misses and 300,000 at-risk behaviors. Imagine the number of chances you take on your farm everyday and you can imagine how close you are to becoming the death statistic.
As farmers shared their close call stories in our community, they usually included the comments “I was in a hurry”, “I had to finish before the rain”, “I was being stupid”, “I didn’t have time to fix it right”, or “I always just did it that way”. When there is a serious accident, everyone reflects back and tries to change their bad habits. Never be in such a hurry that you start the tractor while standing next to it (so tempting but your foot or life is worth more than the extra time). Don’t go jumping over the PTO while it’s running (that stray shoe lace could pull your leg right in). Put the machine guard back on after working on it (even if you don’t seem to have the extra ½ an hour).
For farmers who want to improve the safety on their farm, NYCAMH offers a wide variety of services from clinical health screening to worker safety trainings to social service support. There are specific programs for Dairy farms, migrant workers, ROPS rebate funding, logging safety, personal protective equipment and youth education.
NYCAMH receives funding through many different government sources. The New York State Department of Labor supports our outreach and worker training program. NYCAMH is a NYS Occupational Health Clinic specializing in agriculture, offering a Farm Health Clinic and on-farm screening services. And the US CDC National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) fund our Northeast Center for Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Safety and Health Research efforts.
Now that we have a better eye for finding the hazards, we’ve replaced the PTO shield on our mower, looked into how to fix the rollover bar on the Kubota, fixed up some of the barn wiring and changed where we store the fuel containers. I may still worry about my husband when he’s out working under so many adverse conditions, but I’m worrying a little less as we are both more conscious about being safer on our farm.
Marybeth Vargha works at the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health in Cooperstown, NY and works together with her husband on their family farm, Big Sky Farm. She can be reached at (607)547-6023 and email@example.com