Last weekend I found myself sitting in the local Tim Hortons having coffee with a retired farmer. He was missing some fingers on his left hand from an amputation. And it made me think of how many retired — and current — farmers I know just in this area that have similar injuries from a life on the farm.
Maybe I paid more attention to that injury than I normally would have, because only a couple of days before that, on January 26th, I was invited to the University of Manitoba’s Glenlea Research Farm near Winnipeg to observe the first-ever Tractor Safety Day. It was a pilot project aimed at introducing structured machinery safety training into the university’s ag certificate program.
Why teach students, who are mostly farm kids anyway, about machinery safety when many of them have already logged dozens or hundreds of hours on machines? The farm accident statistics say it all. A study titled “Agricultural Fatalities in Canada, 1990-2008” provides some alarming information.
In the 19 years looked at in the study, there were an astonishing 1,975 deaths from farm accidents; that’s an average of 104 per year, which makes farming one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. 70 per cent of those incidents were machinery related, involving rollovers, runovers and entanglements. What’s perhaps even more disturbing is 14 per cent of those killed were farm children.
One of the instructors at the training day was Morag Marjerison, who is now a farm safety consultant, but she’s had experience as a farm accident investigator in both the U.K. and Canada. She’s been a long-time proponent of improving PTO safety, having investigated many deaths from shaft entanglement.
“I hear all the standard excuses,” she told students. “On the day it happens, someone says, ‘it’s never happened before’.”
She made the point that every accident ends up involving other members of the family, who will be forever scarred by finding a loved one mangled, often beyond recognition, at the site of the death.
“One wife said she couldn’t even tell if it was her husband,” Marjerison said of a previous investigation. “For the vast majority of you, if you do get wrapped around a PTO shaft, it’s going to be a member of your family that finds you.”
In another classroom session, Roy Vust, a retired farmer from Portage la Prairie, recounted the farm accident that left him with burns to most of his body and facing months of painful recovery.
“I didn’t realize anything was wrong until I was upside-down,” he said telling how his tractor rolled over and spilled fuel caught fire. “You don’t have time to run away.”
His message was every tractor should have a rollover protective structure. And wearing a seatbelt is a critical part of preventing injuries in those types of accidents.
“It (a seatbelt) is a critical aspect of the rollover structure,” confirmed Lorne Grieger an engineer from PAMI, who also spoke in the session.
And preventing rollovers comes down to operator judgement, particularly when working on steep inclines. Asking students to look through sample tractor operators’ manuals, Grieger demonstrated that none provide a specific angle that is safe.
“That’s the challenge (for operators),” he said. “What’s safe and what’s not?”