Alarmed by the increasing number of Minnesota farmers who are dying on the job, state officials are scrambling to attack the leading cause of work-related accidents: tractor rollovers.
Key legislators and representatives of three state agencies met for the first time last week to gather information on how other states — including New York and Wisconsin — have reduced farm deaths by helping farmers add rollover protection to aging tractors that remain popular even though they tend to flip and lack modern safety features.
Rep. Paul Anderson, chairman of the House committee that oversees agricultural policy, said a recent Star Tribune series on farm safety made it clear that Minnesota needs to take bold action to reduce tractor rollovers and other agricultural mishaps.
"If Wisconsin can do it, so can we," said Anderson, a Republican who operates a 700-acre farm near Starbuck.
Federal data obtained by the Star Tribune shows that the number of Minnesota farmers killed in work-related accidents soared more than 30 percent in the past decade. From 2003 to 2013, a total of 210 Minnesotans died in farm accidents, which now account for one-quarter of all workplace deaths in Minnesota.
Wisconsin — which has taken a far more aggressive approach to farm safety — has seen the number of fatal accidents drop 16 percent in the past decade.
"Your numbers show we are not doing it correctly, so we better look at this seriously," said Sen. Dan Sparks, an Austin DFLer who serves as chairman of the Senate committee on jobs, agriculture and rural development. "We need to do something to get this trend reversed."
Sparks and Anderson said they plan to hold public hearings on farm safety in the coming months. Anderson said the issue will be one of his top legislative priorities for 2016. He said he is even willing to consider the controversial idea of expanding regulation of small farms, which are currently exempt from workplace oversight in Minnesota and most other states.
"I think everything is on the table," Anderson said.
Sparks said he is concerned that Minnesota has been without a farm safety coordinator since 2008. Though state law says the job should be kept filled "at all times," replacing the previous coordinator has not been a priority, in part because funds are so tight, according to officials at the University of Minnesota Extension Service, which is in charge of filling the position. The university also eliminated farm safety training programs after state and local officials chopped millions of dollars in Extension funding.
"That is something we need to revisit," Sparks said. "We should look at reinstating those programs."
At last week's session, state officials were told that the fatality rate for agricultural workers in Minnesota is 10 times higher than the rate for all nonfarm workers. Moreover, half of all agricultural operations with workers' compensation coverage have had at least one injury claim, said Brian Zaidman, a senior research analyst at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Zaidman told state officials that agricultural claims have jumped 19 percent since 2005.
One of the most surefire ways to reduce farm injuries is to add roll bars to vintage tractors. Altogether, 40 percent of all tractors in use on American farms lack rollover protection, federal records show. When used with a seat belt, roll bars are 99 percent effective in preventing death or serious injury in a tractor overturn, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Installing rollover protection typically costs about $850 per tractor, and the price is one of the main reasons farmers don't invest in the technology, studies show.
Other states have tried to help. To make the protection more affordable, New York started a rebate program in 2006 that covers 70 percent of the costs.
So far, more than 1,400 tractors have been equipped with the safety equipment, and at least 14 farmers who participated have survived a rollover or another life-threatening incident on their modified tractor, according to New York officials. Another 153 farmers reported a "close call."
New York receives $250,000 annually in state funds for the program. It's one of the few states to receive public funding for rollover protection.
Anderson said he hopes to cobble together $100,000 to $250,000 in public and private funds for a tractor program in Minnesota. Since 2003, at least 73 Minnesota farmers have died in tractor accidents.
Safety advocates applaud the rebate programs, but they say such efforts are unlikely to make a big dent in the number of fatal farm accidents because state programs lack the funding necessary to equip the hundreds of thousands of tractors that continue to operate without proper safety gear. More than 1,700 U.S. farmworkers died in tractor accidents since 2003, and rollovers accounted for about 40 percent of those fatalities.
In Pennsylvania, which has managed to upgrade just 109 tractors in five years, an additional 125 farmers remain on a waiting list because of a shortage of funds.
Manufacturers, regulators and public officials have repeatedly called on the federal government to fund a national rebate program, but those pleas have gone nowhere.
When the Star Tribune queried the 10 members of Minnesota's congressional delegation, just one member expressed support for a national tractor safety program.
"The increase in farm deaths is certainly troubling," said Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat from northern Minnesota. "We should certainly prioritize and allow more funding for farm safety, including rollover protection. … And we should allow for more money to be spent on safety outreach. After all, we spent $43 million on a gas station in Afghanistan."
Currently, the federal government spends $13 million on farm safety and health through 10 regional centers, but only 15 percent of that money can be spent on outreach and none of it can be spent on rollover protection, according to NIOSH, which administers the grants. The vast majority of the funds must go toward research.
Farm safety advocates said federal officials should rethink their priorities and make it possible to spend most of that money on equipment and training that would reduce farm accidents.
"We don't need more research," said Mark Purschwitz, a professor at the University of Kentucky who is affiliated with the federally funded farm safety and health center that serves the Southeast. "We know enough about what it takes to prevent serious injuries and fatalities. We need to get on with it."
Jeffrey Meitrodt • 612-673-4132