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Protect agriculture’s future

John Shutske

John Shutske, a specialist with the UW-Division of Extension, helps promote agricultural safety. 

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has issued his proclamation for “Wisconsin Farm Safety and Health Week,” a tradition started a few years ago to parallel the National Farm Safety and Health Week; it was first proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. The theme of this year’s observation is “Protecting Agriculture’s Future.” The proclamation cites the importance of protecting all who work in agriculture – including farmers, ranchers, specialty-crop producers, family members and hired farmworkers.

Agriculture is a major economic player in Wisconsin and surrounding states. In Wisconsin alone, 64,000 farms form the base of an industry that adds $104.8 billion each year – farm operations, food manufacturing, food processing and food transportation. Those industries connect deeply and add to the vitality and health of rural and urban communities. In the past couple years we’ve seen the impacts when there is instability and uncertainty in agriculture. That includes the impacts of COVID-19 on farmworkers and in related businesses. In 2022 we’ve also seen how major global events like war can ripple through the worldwide economy, impacting our ability and confidence to feed a global population.

Agriculture is vital to peace and economic stability, yet agriculture is also dangerous. Data from the National Safety Council indicate we have about 500 deaths of adult agricultural workers each year. And one child dies because of exposure to hazards in the farm workplace every three days. The number of non-fatal injuries that require medical care and treatment exceeds 100,000 annually in the United States. The most recent official reports for Wisconsin agricultural-related fatalities documented 41 deaths in 2017 and 34 in 2018. Totals for 2019 and 2020 will be released later this fall; they appear to have decreased slightly. We know that about one in five farms will be the site of an injury in Wisconsin in 2022 – and 80 percent of those people injured will need medical care.

Beyond fatal and non-fatal injuries, farmers are exposed to hazards that are not as prevalent in most other industries. For example producers who chop corn, alfalfa and other plant material and store the crop to make silage will likely risk exposure to “silo gas” or nitrogen dioxide. The toxic gas can cause serious health effects or even death. Other examples include gases from manure-storage structures as well as grain dust, flowing grain and extreme levels of noise.

So what do we need to do to “Protect Agriculture’s Future?” How can we reduce the burden and exposure to those hazards that cause loss of life, pain and disability as well as long-term economic consequences for families, workers and their employers?

There are several ideas highlighted in the proclamation that we should consider during Farm Safety Week and year-round.

Education and Training – Every worker needs information to do the job safely and correctly. Even older experienced operators can benefit from “brushing up” by doing a read-through on the operator’s manuals of all machines they use. With many types of equipment we may only use them a few days or weeks during the year. It’s easy to forget about key maintenance, lubrication and preparation. Tragic injuries often happen during the stress and frustration of a breakdown.

All hired workers who join the workforce of a farm, no matter how big or small the operation might be, need frequent reminders and periodic training – both informal and formal. Don’t fall into the trap of the notion that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Even greatly experienced workers will benefit from conversations about safety. The added benefit is that the employer will often learn a thing or two about how to improve the situations that are most risky.

In addition, youth working on farms must have proper education. Tractor- and machinery-certification programs are available for 14- and 15-year-old hired workers. The programs are a legal requirement through the U.S. Department of Labor. Training and education for kids is critical, but the education must be geared toward the age and ability of the child. Any job assigned to a young person must be carefully matched to both their physical and mental-decision-making abilities.

Creating a Safer Workplace – Training and education can work well, but only if those working on farms work purposely to remove hazards, re-design working spaces, and invest time and dollars in safety equipment and safe machines. We know that simply asking people to “work around” a dangerous hazard like unguarded equipment, a tractor with no rollover protection or an unprotected height – such as a bin, silo, ladder, roof, etc. – will eventually lead to a bad outcome of either a disabling injury or death. When we work with purpose to remove hazards through doing work differently, or in some cases replacing heavy physical work with safe machines or other technology, we improve safety while also protecting our bodies from dangerous wear and tear.

Leadership and Partnerships – The farm safety and health issue is complex but it’s not new. Many of the contributing factors are deeply rooted in the way we think about the industry. Farmers, agricultural organizations, health-care providers, researchers, educators and others who care deeply need to be at the table to continue conversations about prevention. We need conversations about whether or not we truly accept the health, injury and well-being impacts to the ag industry. In some cases that involves challenging the status quo. In other cases farmers and others should work together to use their ingenuity, resilience and ability to innovate to figure out how to make the industry safer and more sustainable for those who work on farms.

We are observing Farm Safety Week for the 79th time in the United States. Fortunately since 1944 we’ve seen many improvements in the lives and safety of farmers, family members and farmworkers. But we still have a long way to go. Spend some time to think about how you can best play your part.

Visit agsafety.wisc.edu and www.marshfieldresearch.org/nfmc and marshfieldresearch.org/nccrahs and agrability.bse.wisc.edu for more information.

John Shutske is a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Department of Biological Systems Engineering and a specialist with the UW-Division of Extension. He also is the director of the UW-Center for Agricultural Safety and Health. Visit www.agsafety.info for more information.

Scott Heiberger is a communications manager with the National Farm Medicine Center and National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. Visit www.marshfieldresearch.org/nfmc and marshfieldresearch.org/nccrahs for more information.

Andrea Klahn is an outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and with AgrAbility of Wisconsin. Visit agrability.bse.wisc.edu for more information.

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