Two North Dakota farmers died in June, five days apart, in grain bins. Those were in addition to numerous similar incidents in recent months across the region that left farmers buried in grain.

“Especially in the past year, grain bin incidents have been ticking upward pretty dramatically,” says Megan Schossow, outreach coordinator for the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center based at the University of Minnesota.

Poor agronomic conditions in the past two years have led to wet or poor-quality grain being put in bins. And stress sometimes plays a part in putting someone in the wrong state of mind to make critical decisions.

Megan Schossow, outreach coordinator for the Upper Midwest Ag Safety and Health Center at the University of Minnesota. (Contributed photo)
Megan Schossow, outreach coordinator for the Upper Midwest Ag Safety and Health Center at the University of Minnesota. (Contributed photo)
“Once you have that out-of-condition grain, that really increases the possibility for bridging, walls building up, and anything like that is going to create a situation in which farmers are going to want to go in or need to go in to get that grain flowing again,” Schossow says. “When you’re incredibly stressed, psychologically, decision making deteriorates, and that’s true whether you’re a farmer or a physician doing surgery or a parent.”

And it’s not just grain bins. In February, a North Dakota man was killed while unloading cattle feed. In March, a Minnesota man was killed delivering a calf. In May, a North Dakota man was killed when he was thrown from a tractor. In late June, a North Dakota man on an ATV was killed while spraying weeds.

A common thread through that small sample of fatal incidents is that the work getting done wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“We get in a habit of doing our work every day, same type of stuff, and sometimes we don’t think about some of the dangers that could happen,” says Angie Johnson, North Dakota State University Extension Agent for Steele County. “We just know we have a task to get done and we move forward to get it done.”

Angie Johnson, North Dakota State University Extension Agent for Steele County, is one of several county agents involved in a new safety awareness effort. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Angie Johnson, North Dakota State University Extension Agent for Steele County, is one of several county agents involved in a new safety awareness effort. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has added another layer to the things people in agriculture need to do to keep themselves safe, and has complicated the work of safety advocates in trying to get their messages out. But the message remains the same: Those doing agricultural work need to remember to stop, think and act to prevent tragedy.

“You always talk about how things could have been prevented, and we can play the what-if game,” Johnson says. “But let’s learn from that.”

A hard-to-quantify problem

Following safety warnings on equipment is one way to stay safe on farms and ranches. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Following safety warnings on equipment is one way to stay safe on farms and ranches. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 416 farmers died in 2017 from work-related injuries, at a rate of 20.4 deaths per 100,000 workers.

Statistics on injuries are hard to nail down because of the many different types of agricultural work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics divides injury numbers among numerous categories, including crop production, animal production and more. What all of the categories have in common is that the numbers are staggering. For instance, reported injuries in the category of “beef cattle ranching and farming, including feedlots” for 2018 were 8.5 cases per 100 workers, five out of 100 of which resulted in days away from work. Veterinary services had a rate of 10.4 cases per 100 workers, 2.5 of which resulted in days away from work. And that’s just the injuries that were reported.

Johnson reflects on the loss last year of a family friend whose open-cab tractor rolled over when he was sickle mowing ditches. A rollover protection kit on the tractor could have saved his life.

“I think each and every one of us can think of someone or know of someone who has been impacted by a farm accident,” she says.

Stop. Think. Act.

Angie Johnson, North Dakota State University Extension Agent for Steele County, points out dangerous areas on equipment, including the PTO shaft. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
Angie Johnson, North Dakota State University Extension Agent for Steele County, points out dangerous areas on equipment, including the PTO shaft. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
If the problem is obvious — that agricultural work is dangerous and leads to many injuries and deaths — the solutions are less clear. Each task, each operation and each day include different risks, and there is no one way to get things done.

But the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center has a simple, easy-to-remember mantra that covers nearly any preventable situation that could occur: Stop. Think. Act.

“When we talk to people who have a close call or an incident, almost always what they say is, ‘I was in a hurry and I didn’t think about it,’” Schossow says. “The No. 1 way to prevent any kind of serious incident is, especially when you’re in a high-risk, high-hazard area, just give pause and think about what it is you’re up to.”

Maybe the task is clearing a clog out of a forage chopper. Johnson says before diving into the job, the responsible thing to do is to stop and think about the potential hazards. Maybe the worker is wearing a baggy sweatshirt that could get caught in equipment. Maybe the PTO shaft hasn’t been shut down and the machine is still spinning. Taking time to think about the complications could make all the difference.

Maybe it’s stopping to think whether the 10 seconds it would save to step over the spinning PTO rather than walk around the tractor makes sense, Schossow says.

“Do the risk analysis. It’s not typically worth it,” she says.

Schossow recommends checking out information from the Grain Handling Safety Coalition at https://grainsafety.org, especially in light of the number of grain-related incidents recently.

Protecting kids, also, is a big part of safety efforts. Both Johnson and Schossow say growing up around agriculture can be a great thing, and there are acceptable jobs for youth on farms. But making sure the child is ready for the task is important.

“Being mentally ready to take on the responsibility of driving a quad-track tractor that size on a highway, even just a gravel road — are you prepared to take on that responsibility?” Johnson asks, pointing out that “those are really big expectations we’re putting on our youth unintentionally.”

As a kid, she says she wanted to get in the tractor and be just like her dad, too, but “Dad didn’t do it until he knew I was mentally ready to handle that responsibility.”

Getting kids some training also is helpful. Johnson teaches tractor safety courses to youth and sees the difference that can make. Schossow says UMASH taught animal handling to 700 fourth graders last year.

The website https://cultivatesafety.org offers work guidelines for youth in agriculture. Tasks can be sorted by age or activity, and reports on each type provide what kids need to be able to do to take on a job and what adults need to do to safely supervise the tasks.

“Consider where kids are at developmentally and match the work they’re doing to that,” Schossow says.

Coronavirus complications

The coronavirus pandemic has added an extra layer of difficulty for farm safety. Safety advocates have had to come up with coronavirus prevention strategies for agriculture while also finding new ways to get their messages out.

At NDSU Extension, a group of county agents, including Johnson, started working on an awareness campaign to help farmers determine the best way to prevent coronavirus. That morphed into an all-out safety awareness campaign, which includes guides, videos, testimonials and more about a variety of farm safety topics, available at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/farmsafety.

With the high number of grain entrapment deaths in the region, Johnson says the farm safety group at NDSU Extension is working with engineers and others to find ways to keep people out of grain bins. That’s a work in progress, but she is hopeful they’ll come up with some workable solutions.

North Dakota State University Extension is developing window clings to help with safety topics, including equipment disinfection and hand signals for communication. To get a window cling, talk to your county NDSU Extension agent. (NDSU)
North Dakota State University Extension is developing window clings to help with safety topics, including equipment disinfection and hand signals for communication. To get a window cling, talk to your county NDSU Extension agent. (NDSU)
Another effort at NDSU Extension that Johnson thinks will help on a national level are window clings for equipment. One cling will list simple steps to disinfect equipment, including reminders of high-touch areas. Another cling will provide 11 approved hand signals to be used between machinery operators and those working outside the machinery. Providing that communication aid can be crucial in keeping people safe, she says. The clings will be available through NDSU Extension’s county agents.

NDSU Extension has developed this window cling to explain how to disinfect equipment.
NDSU Extension has developed this window cling to explain how to disinfect equipment.
The Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center similarly has been working on providing COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Schossow says guidance from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not necessarily practical advice for most farms, with recommendations like not sharing vehicles. So UMASH is offering its own guidelines at http://umash.umn.edu/covid-19-resources.

UMASH usually does substantial outreach at farm shows. But with coronavirus prevention efforts causing the cancellation of many events, including Minnesota Farmfest where UMASH has had a large presence, the center has planned an online expo in August. The expo will feature three days where people can visit virtual “booths” on different topics. There will be demonstrations, interactive sessions where people can ask questions, talks on health care topics, mental health and call-before-you-dig requirements. More information will be available soon at http://umash.umn.edu/umash-online-expo.

The expo will be just one of many resources available to those in agriculture. But if they do nothing else, Johnson and Schossow urge people to keep reminding themselves to stop, think and act.

“Slow down, take the time to shut the key off in that tractor if you need to go work on that implement. And make really good choices,” Johnson says. “And I know how hard it is, because our time is so limited. Our spraying windows to apply pesticides are limited. Our harvesting windows are limited. But really, the farm won’t be successful if you’re not there.”