Modern farming and ranching is dangerous work. It was rated the fourth most dangerous job in America according to 2010 Bureau of Labor statistics (based on fatality rates per 100,000 workers). Farming requires physical labor often involving heavy equipment (tractors, wagons, augers, combines, etc.) and/or sharp implements (hoes, machete, etc.). Given the potential for human error, Murphy’s law, etc., accidents occur. For example, tractors sometimes roll over, causing serious injury or death. Such danger is entirely avoidable with the addition of rollover protection equipment now required on all new tractors built in America. However, farmers tend to treat their equipment like their own bodies, pushing to the limits until they will go no further. Thus, most farms have older tractors in use lacking state-of-the-art protective devices. And farmers tend to relegate the occasional, more hazardous tasks, often done on uneven ground, to their older (unprotected) tractors. Thus, efforts to save money set them up for possible disaster. Combines (large, drivable implements which harvest crops) have many moving, exposed parts capable of mangling limbs. In addition to growing crops, many farmers keep livestock-another part of agriculture which has its dangers. Although more rare than machine-related injuries, improperly managed livestock can cause serious, sometimes fatal injury. Livestock, though domesticated, remain dangerous at times if not handled with caution. To summarize, farming and ranching entails daily duties with many potential risks to safety.
I grew up in an Iowa farming community, and my family on both sides has strong farm roots. My maternal grandmother owns several farms, one of which my uncle and aunt live on and operate, while the others are rented. As a teenager looking for work, I often sought farm work, in bean or hay fields, to earn money. Small towns offer few, if any, jobs for teens. I have pleasant memories of good times spent working with friends in green farm fields. I recall every year, during harvest season, hearing the hum of the loud grain drying fans coming from the local grain elevator. I’ve seen grain put on the ground in giant piles, the size of large homes, when storage space inside a bin was not available. Growing up I heard stories of farmers losing digits, limbs, or sometimes their lives to the perils of farm work. Farm life offers many rewards, along with its hard work and risks, but that’s not something I’m relating at this time. I write all of this to illustrate my first-hand experience with the farm culture.
A recent news series by National Public Radio (NPR) shocked me as it detailed a pattern of unnecessary agriculture workplace deaths. It related an incident where two teenagers were killed and a third narrowly escaped the same fate while working together in a grain bin in northern Illinois. The following statistics were taken from that NPR report. An average of 16 people die by suffocation each year from the illegal practice of ‘walking down corn.’ This is done to break up wet, clustered grain which becomes clogged inside grain bins. Over the last 40 years more than 660 unnecessary deaths have occurred in grain bins. I have been inside such bins, while they were empty, and the experience was nothing a claustrophobic should ever attempt. These circular bins serve a dual purpose, as both storage and drying facilities. They have cement foundations and floors housing vast ventilation systems. The walls are made of steel, with no windows and only a small door. Grain enters the structure through the roof, and a mechanism stirs the kernals as air flows up from the floor to dry and remove moisture from the corn. The potential danger, once grain has entered the bin, is legendary amongst farmers. The costly bins are somewhat of a status symbol as only wealthier farmers can afford to install very many of them. Farmers know that storing their harvest in bins allows them more control of their bottom line in that they can manipulate their profit by holding crops and selling only at the most opportune times. In the last year, farmers have installed an additional 300 million bushels of on-farm storage spaces. Storing crops on their own farm eliminates the storage and drying fees charged by grain processing businesses, often called grain elevators, near their farms. My father, an electrician by trade, used to wire new bins to provide power for their stirring and drying mechanisms. I would often accompany him into these bins for a somewhat surreal experience of what I imagined it must be like if one could shrink oneself and get inside an empty soup can. The bins are often as high as four stories and hold hundreds of thousands of bushels of crop.
Federal Safety Regulations.
Because of the well-known hazards of grain bins, there are federal laws in place requiring that safety practices be utilized when working inside the structures. For example, harnesses, equipment locks, and spotters must be utilized to minimize dangers germane to working around grain enclosures. Thus, the casualties of farm work are often preventable through implementation of current, legally-mandated safety practices. Tragically, such safety regimens are not always employed by those seeking to maximize profit by cutting corners. Further, family-owned farms operate mostly outside the realm of the agriculture industry’s federal mandates. Enforcement of these regulations is seriously lacking in that even the most blatant violations, which led to deaths, to date have never resulted in any responsible party serving a single day in jail. At their most serious, charges following deaths have been misdemeanors-not real deterrants.
Grain bins have not always been as dangerous as they are today. Manually scooping grain with a shovel poses no particular risks. The greatest hazards accompany mechanization. When moist grain becomes clogged it cannot dry properly, which can potentially cause rotting and mold, which renders it worthless. Nor can clogged grain be moved easily for its sale. Thus, breaking up clogs in stored grain is vitally important. The risk to human life lies in the fact that the powerful, quicksand-like flowing grain can very quickly surround and suffocate anyone attempting to manually loosen clogged kernals inside a storage bin. One apparently harmless kernal of corn multiplied by a few million becomes a serious threat to the vulnerable human body. Hopefully recent media exposure of the deaths due to this known danger will force OSHA to enforce the laws already in place to safegard the agriculture workplace and prevent any further injury or loss of life. (image courtesy of http://www.fotosearch.com)