Thank you to the Star Tribune for bringing critical attention to the issue of farm-work injuries and deaths in Minnesota over the last decade (“Tragic Harvest,” Oct 4-7). I began my career in farm safety 30 years ago, and spent almost 18 years as the agricultural safety and health specialist in Minnesota, leaving to become an associate dean in Wisconsin in 2008.
The death numbers cited in the article raise questions, such as: How exactly were these data within each individual state derived? What types of quality-control measures went into each state’s determination of farm death numbers? And how were these numbers evaluated relative to the changing number of farms and farmworkers in each state?
It should also be noted that Minnesota has always been a strong state with respect to monitoring public health issues. And states that do a good job on this often show high numbers simply because reporting is better.
Having said this, it is important to know that the issue of occupational safety and health on farms is complex. In my Minnesota work, I consistently told farmers, health professionals, community leaders, veterinarians, engineers, elected officials and agribusiness leaders that there never is a single magic bullet to solve any complex public health issue. Everyone in an agricultural community who provides goods, services, and information to farmers, workers, and their families must be part of solutions to prevent deaths and injuries on farms.
The article referenced the fact that our program trained over 12,000 children and 500 to 1,000 farmers per year through the early 2000s. But more important, our work in the 1990s and early 2000s involved building and supporting leadership teams and coalitions — often led by extension educators, public health nurses, farmers and trusted community leaders. These groups worked within their local communities to change norms of “acceptable” behavior and risk with thousands of farmers. It is difficult work that takes resources and patience. It literally does take a village.
In my final year in Minnesota, I was blessed to hear stories from people whose lives we touched through our farm safety extension and research program. At Farmfest in Redwood Falls, a young mom approached me carrying a young child, reminding me of a farm safety day camp she’d attended more than a decade earlier near Rosemount in Dakota County. She told me that it had made a huge impression on her, her siblings and her parents and that as young parents, she and her husband were doing things on the farm relative to safety much differently than her parents and grandparents had done when she was a girl.
After reading the “Tragic Harvest” articles, I feel similarly to how I felt in 1985, when I began to work with Bill Field at Purdue University on farm safety problems: frustrated, and at times, angry. I’m not convinced that more OSHA regulations will solve this problem. They probably won’t hurt anything, but they’re not the magic bullet. Nothing is. It will take a more comprehensive strategy and long-term view.
I read with interest of the successes enjoyed in Washington state. I worked with growers and ranchers in Washington’s Yakima Valley for almost a year in the insurance industry as new rules were being put into place. Minnesota is a very different state, but there are some lessons to be learned. I particularly agree on the mandate for rollover protection on tractors.
Here are some things I think we need to continue to do. Think of them as Minnesota’s former farm safety and health specialist’s top 10 list:
• Engineers must continue to improve safety through new designs.
• Machinery dealers must make it easy to purchase important safety upgrades (including providing discounts and other incentives).
• Farmers need seasonal reminders of dangers in confined spaces such as grain bins, silos and manure pits.
• Health professionals and veterinarians must use their aura of credibility to educate about safety.
• Farm suppliers must stock an array of critical personal protective equipment including safety glasses, respirators, clothing and gloves.
• Communities need support from experts for farm safety day camps, educational seminars, health fairs and demonstrations.
• Agricultural association and business leaders must be role models, instilling a sense that this problem does not have to be part of farming.
• Anyone hiring any employee to drive a tractor or do any other type of farm work must provide excellent training and appropriate supervision (in a language that the employee understands with clarity).
• Parents and other caregivers must understand that a farm is a dangerous industrial workplace — and that they must do everything in their power to protect the lives of children who live on and visit farms.
• While having an antique tractor might be fun for fairs and parades, they can be incredibly unsafe. Given the choice, farmers should always work with tractors equipped with rollover protection and a seat belt and other important safety equipment.
John Shutske is associate dean for extension and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.