Farmers face risk on a regular basis. Routine tasks can quickly turn life-threatening, as Dorothy Barr discovered while loading grain to feed her cattle.
Dorothy and her husband, David Barr, farm just over 1,000 acres near Mervin, Saskatchewan. David also holds a full-time job off the farm, making seeding and harvest hectic.
May 29, 2009, was one of those busy days. Dorothy’s afternoon agenda included harrowing, plus feeding her cattle. David was busy seeding, so she spent the day working alone.
Dorothy drove the tractor to the neighbour’s farmyard, where the Barrs were storing oats. She parked the tractor a few feet from the metal granary, close enough to pour oats into the front-end loader. She lowered the loader and set it at a 45-degree angle from the ground. The ground was fairly level, and the loader was heavy, so she set the brake and left the tractor running.
Dorothy and David had cleaned bins this way many times, but as Dorothy climbed from the tractor, she had an uneasy feeling.
“After I got out of the tractor, I looked at the tractor and thought, ‘Everything is fine.’ It must have been a sixth sense,” she says.
To this day, Dorothy’s not sure if she did something differently, such as not lowering the front-end loader all the way to the ground.
Dorothy stepped between the granary and the front-end loader and began scooping oats into a five-gallon pail. She’d poured about five pails of oats into the loader when the accident happened.
“It rolled ahead because of the weight (of the oats) in the (loader). I was able to pick one leg up in time, but not the other,” says Dorothy.
Within three seconds, the front-end loader had pinched Dorothy’s right leg below the knee, pressing it against the steel granary. Her other leg was safe, inside the bin.
“I was pinned. My life flashed before my eyes, literally.”
Most farm fatalities machinery related
Dorothy is far from the only farmer to have an accident involving machinery. A report recently released by the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association recorded 1,975 farm fatalities between 1990 and 2008. Machinery-related fatalities accounted for 70 per cent, or 1,381, of the farm fatalities. Deaths as a result of being pinned or struck by machinery totalled 139.
Dorothy cried and called for help for the first hour, but she was too isolated for anyone to hear. No one lived in the nearby farmhouse anymore. She had a radio in the tractor, and had been in contact with her mother-in-law and husband shortly before being pinned. But the radio was now beyond her reach. She didn’t have a cell phone on her, but even if she had, there was no cell service at the grain bin.
“So I was hooped. All I could hope for was that somebody was going to think, ‘Where’s Dorothy?’”
David wasn’t expecting to see Dorothy for several hours because she planned to go to 4-H in Edam that evening. She realized she might not be missed until late that night or even the next morning. Though it was warm during the day, she worried about spending a night trapped against the granary.
“I was in a lot of pain, but I had my mind made up. I had to calm down. I had to keep with it.”
After an hour, the pain faded, and Dorothy went into shock. She sat in the tractor’s bucket and waited. Birds chirped nearby, annoying Dorothy with their apparent cheerfulness. A cheeky squirrel, raiding the grain bin, ran across her foot.
Nearly three hours after Dorothy was pinned, a neighbour came into the yard. When he saw Dorothy, he wanted to back up the tractor. But he wasn’t familiar with the machine and Dorothy, fearing he might accidently put the tractor into first gear, gave him three or four phone numbers to call for help. David’s uncle arrived and backed the tractor, freeing Dorothy.
After being trapped for about three hours, Dorothy hobbled to the truck, and they rushed her to the emergency room in Turtleford. After a two-day hospital stay, Dorothy was released.
The tractor didn’t break any bones. But Dorothy still has no feeling in part of her right leg, and she is in constant pain. She went to physiotherapy for a year after the accident, and she credits her physiotherapist for helping her regain mobility and manage the pain.
“I can ignore the pain, but I can’t ignore the tractor (and loader). Life could have passed me by.”
Despite the pain and nerve damage, Dorothy is active on the farm. She runs machinery, takes care of her cattle, and even resumed horseback riding last fall. Because she often works by herself, she now carries a cell phone, at her daughter’s insistence. She doesn’t load grain into the front end loader anymore, either.
But she worries more than she used to.
“And now I’m terrified of the tractor. I’m terrified of hills. I make myself do it. Because you don’t want to give up on life that easy.” Augers and moving machinery also worry her, but the she tries to overcome her fear by thinking positively.
She also thinks about the different factors that led to her accident.
Part of the problem is some people tend to be in a hurry because they’re “working a full-time job to support their farming habit,” Dorothy says. Farming is risky, the machinery is big, and every farmer makes mistakes, Dorothy points out. Farmers need to slow down and think about what they’re doing, she says.
“We always get in a hurry. Seeding and harvest are hurried modes for every farmer. Everybody. Take the extra five minutes in your life for that moment and maybe you’ll have the extra 50 years.” †