Campaigning for Farmer Safety

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations. Every year, thousand of farmers are seriously injured in the Great Lakes region, often because of carelessness or fatigue. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports, sometimes farm work turns deadly:


Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations. Every year, thousand of farmers are seriously injured in the Great Lakes Region, often because of carelessness or fatigue. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports, sometimes farm work turns deadly.

“For any farmer listening, it makes me feel really dumb to do what I did”

What Illinois State Representative Dave Winters did was attempt to clean up a grain bin with his hands, instead of a broom. A slow-moving auger caught his glove on a wintry day last year and before he knew it, Winters was missing most of his little finger on his left hand.

“Any farmer is aware of the dangers of augers, and I certainly was. I was just careless, tired and not thinking”

When he’s not in the state capital of Springfield, the 49-year-old Winters grows corn, soybeans, and prairie grasses on his farm. After the accident, Winters decided to use his position as a public official to spread the word about farm safety. He says working alone, like he was, greatly increases a farmer’s risk.

“And you try to reach too far, you try to do things that you need help doing but there’s nobody available, so you get yourself into dangerous situations. The other problem is that if something does happen, in some instances farmers have lost their lives or have been severely injured because there wasn’t anybody there to turn off the equipment or to get help immediately”

Most family farms are too small to fall under federal occupational regulations that require a minimum of safety precautions. So sometimes, the simplest of safety measures may be overlooked. And that plus the presence of powerful machinery can make for a very dangerous work environment. Each year more than 700 farm-related deaths occur nationwide as well as tens of thousands of injuries requiring medical attention. These accidents cost farmers billions of dollars a year in medical bills and lost productivity.

The largest cause of farm deaths is tractor rollovers, and nearly two-thirds of tractor deaths involve people over the age of 60. University of Illinois Farm Safety Specialist Bob Aherin says this is probably due to slower reflexes among older farmers and their tendency to use outdated equipment. Most new farm implements offer greater protection to users, and Aherin says those safeguards have contributed to a general decline in farm deaths over the past twenty years. One area of particular concern on farms is children. Most farmers live and work in the same environment, and Aherin says it’s not unusual to have kids around.

“They’re either out doing work sometimes before they’re ready to some things and they are not prepared both physically, but more often it’s because they’re not old enough, they don’t have the mental processing skills to do some of the activities we ask them to do.”

The 1989 death of Iowa teenager Shaun Peterson in a farming accident led to the creation of a support group bearing his name. The Sharing Help Awareness United Network provides counseling to farm families who have lost a loved one of any age. Board member Kenneth Thu is a Northern Illinois University anthropology professor. He says farm accidents are especially tough on a family because the tragedy usually occurs very close to home . . . and that means they can’t get away from it. Even a serious injury can lead to a significant loss of income, and a lack of health insurance can be catastrophic. The result can be severe depression, and Thu says it’s sometimes tough to get help because many mental health professionals simply don’t understand the needs of rural farm families.

“Not recognizing the kind of living and work-structure that they live in. The kinds of stresses and strains they feel, particularly these days with so many farming couples working off the farm, the fact that the kinds of social networks that used to exist in rural areas are dwindling away quickly. And so people are often-times more isolated then they used to be”

And though it may be a stereotype, Thu says most farmers think they don’t need any help.

“Getting support services, counseling services to farmers is probably more difficult than providing those same services to people who live in urban settings, because there’s more of a reluctance for rural dwellers, particularly farmers, to get those kinds of services. They think of themselves as more rugged, more independent. So they’re less prone to access support services”

Even with a decline in farm deaths nationwide, those support services will continue to be needed. Farming trails only underground mining as the second deadliest occupation in the United States. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.