ASHLAND -- Ohio is losing the future of the farming business because of preventable accidents, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation trustee Roger Baker said.
Baker, district eight trustee representing Ashland, Medina, Summit and Wayne counties, gave his trustee report in August at the annual meeting of the Ashland Soil and Water Conservation District and Ashland Farm Bureau.
“This isn’t your typical state trustee report, but I think it’s the most important state trustee report I could give,” Baker said.
What is usually a technical overview of operations and finances was instead focused on a recent tragedy.
Baker described the circumstances leading up to the deaths of three Ohio farmers, brothers in Mercer County, who died after getting stuck in a manure pit and passing out from the fumes.
“We’re in a tough occupation and we take it for granted,” Baker said. “We think because we grew up around this it’s not as dangerous to us.”
Manure pits often produce deadly gases, such as hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide, and these pits are common on livestock farms. The danger of toxic gas is one of many health threats on farms.
“It’s earth shattering,” Baker said, and went on to tell the district members his cousin died in a silo accident a few years ago.
Baker left local farmers and board members with a call to action: create training programs throughout the four-county area to prevent farm accidents and fatalities.
So, what accidents are the counties seeing, and what can be done to prevent them?
Fatal farm accidents on the rise
Agriculture has some of the highest rates of preventable fatal work injuries among major industry sectors, according to the National Safety Council.
Farm-related fatalities per year in Ohio have been increasing, said Dee Jepsen, state leader for The Ohio State University Extension Agricultural Safety and Health Program. Jepsen is also a professor of food, agricultural and biological engineering at OSU.
She heads the Ag Safety Program's surveillance efforts to collect data of Ohio farm fatalities, with the most recent data being from 2009-2018. The COVID-19 pandemic has stymied more recent data gathering, Jepsen said.
Over the 10-year span, the data shows the most prevalent cause of death on Ohio farms to be tractors and machinery, followed by grain handling fatalities, all-terrain vehicles and skid loaders/forklifts.
Tractor deaths combined with towed wagons/implements represent 59% of farm deaths. Based on the data, deaths because of accidents in grain bins and other confined spaces are rising, as are ATV's and skid loaders, Jepsen said.
Farmers of typical retirement age make up 36% of farm deaths, and people under the age of 20 make up 20%. Together these deaths — of people who may not otherwise be employed in non-farm sectors based on age — represent 56% of the state deaths, Jepsen said.
Locally, the data from north central Ohio — Huron, Lorain, Medina, Wayne, Holmes, Knox and Richland Counties — follows a similar trend.
From 2009-2019, OSU's Ag Safety Program recorded 18 farm-related fatalities in the 7-county region. The most prevalent injury agent in this narrowed region corresponded with the most prevalent injury agent in Ohio at large — tractors.
Of the 18 recorded farm-related fatalities, six involved tractors; four involved other farm equipment, machinery and wagons; three involved skid loaders and forklifts; two involved manure pits; one involved grain handling and storage; one happened on a roadway; and the cause of death for two was unknown.
As is the case with many databases, OSU's database does not capture all deaths and, specifically, lacks data on non-fatal injuries.
"Our database does not do as good of a job capturing injuries, just because it's the nature of farm life," Jepsen said. "A lot of farmer's don't have to report their injuries to anyone."
Jepsen said United States law contributes to inconsistent data-gathering because tracking injuries is not always required. However, U.S. law requires certain safety measures to be upheld on farms.
For example, before anyone enters a grain bin, an observer must be present, a body harness with a lifeline is required, all moving equipment must be turned off, two means of emergency escape must be maintained and an emergency plan and safety training must be in place, according to United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule 1910.272.
Still, while OSHA rules apply on small farms, they are not enforced.
Agency inspectors are barred from inspecting farms with 10 employees or fewer, and family members of farm employers are not counted when determining the number of employees.
This leaves small family farms, such as those in Ashland and nearby counties, not subject to upholding safety rules or tracking incidents, and not subject to inspection before or after such accidents, even when there are deaths.
Current and up-and-coming training
Some work is being done to train people, mainly first responders, on farm accident response and prevention in nearby Wayne County.
Ashland’s Farm Bureau assisted in developing and funding a facility and program on grain-bin rescues in Apple Creek at the Wayne County Regional Training Facility. The facility at large is used to train first responders from across Ohio through live fire training, driving courses and a recently added dive site for water rescues.
Brandon Nettleton, an instructor at the facility and head of its agriculture program, said the idea for the grain rescue program came about in 2017 after Ashland, Holmes, Medina and Wayne County Farm Bureaus donated grain-bin rescue tubes to local fire departments, Nettleton said.
But, first responders did not have the training to use the new equipment.
Volunteers from the four aforementioned counties, which included Nettleton, formed a committee to design, raise money and construct the grain rescue training project, which ended up costing $250,000.
The grain bin prop is the only stationary and indoor prop in the state. The only other prop is the Grain C.A.R.T. (Comprehensive Agricultural Rescue Trailer) based out of Columbus.
“We get to do the entrapment courses, that way first responders know how to properly mitigate a call when they get called out for an individual trapped in a grain bin, how to safely approach and extricate that victim, and do it in a manner that we’re not creating any more damage that might already be done,” Nettleton said.
The instructors have been training this summer through what Nettleton referred to as “train the trainer” classes, and the facility will open to the public in the coming months.
The first practice "dummy" buried in the grain prop for the “train the trainer” classes at the facility was Jon Orr, who was a part of the initial planning committee and has a custom harvesting business based in Apple Creek.
Orr said even in the controlled facility space, wearing a harness and with people nearby and prepared to help, it was terrifying.
“When you get (covered with grain) about down to your butt, things start to pull,” Orr said. “It feels like there’s a 300-pound man hanging on your foot. You start realizing, you know, I can’t get out of here.
"There is absolutely total helplessness at that point in time.”
Orr got involved with the grain-bin training program after a friend of his, who was a crop farmer in Indiana, died in a farming accident in 2016.
“He had a grain avalanche on him, and he never came out alive,” Orr said. “So, that made it personal to me.”
Orr said this led to him reflecting on his own safety practices and those of his friends and customers.
“How many times do we get a pass on that (accident) before one of these times it’s going to squish us, or cut our hand off, or cut our finger off?” Orr questioned.
He realized he and other farmers often think about safety after completing tasks -- escaping unscathed is left to luck when it does not have to be.
Orr plans to train his employees in the facility once it opens, he said.
The facility will likely open to the public this fall, although there is no set date at this time, said executive director at Wayne County Regional Training Facility Erica Springer.
Springer said the program has developed outlines for three core courses, a 4-hour introduction to grain rescue course and two 8-hour technician courses specifically for first responders. These courses will involve a combination of hands-on training in the prop and classroom instruction, she said.
At first, classes will be on a need-be basis. Springer said if a group or company contacts the facility, the facility staff will work with them to schedule a date for training.
Course prices are also still being determined and will likely be set on a case-by-case basis, depending on the amount of hands-on versus lecture instruction.
“We’ll have a minimum requirement in order to hold a course,” Springer said. “We’re trying to determine what our minimum needs to be to make sure this is a quality course and what the expense will be from there.”
First and foremost, the facility is focusing on training first responders, both Nettleton and Springer said. However, as the program grows, it will be open to industry professionals and those who run family farms.
Springer said having a variety of people in training sessions will also help coordinate the work of first responders and employers/workers, allowing for more efficient rescues.
“You can’t prevent everything, so we would like to do the best we can to help the farmers understand how to prepare for the first responders to get there, what to expect once the first responders get there and how to go from there,” Springer said.
While the grain bin prop is the key new component, the Wayne County facility also offers or will soon offer other classes such as presentations on silo firefighting, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, hazardous materials training and modern-day farm equipment lessons.
“We know that farm equipment is bigger and more powerful than ever,” Nettleton said. “Gone are the days of reaching into grandpa's tractor cab and pulling the old diesel fuel stop switch to shut the tracker off.
"We’ve got computers and monitors and keys and buttons and switches now that do a plethora of things.”
Another key issue Nettleton sees: farm-related accidents happening on land other than farms, specifically roadways.
“We know these pieces of farm machinery go up and down the road every day getting field to field, farm to farm,” Nettleton said. “There are farm machine accidents involving pedestrians, people in their personal vehicles as they’re on the road.”
Nettleton added that an obstacle to training local farmers may be that they do not view their jobs as dangerous, something trustee Baker also alluded to in his trustee report.
“The agriculture industry is such a high-risk endeavor,” Nettleton said. “Farmers don’t think of it on a daily basis because it’s what they do every day, and what they do they don’t feel is a hazard.”
The fear of accidents and death may often be an afterthought for farmers, but should be an incentive for people to take these training courses, Netteton said.
“I don’t want to take fear as the approach, but complacency kills,” Nettleton said. “When you become complacent, when you become comfortable, that’s when accidents happen."
Orr pointed out in addition to the foundational incentive to ensure one's own and others’ safety, training also helps from a liability perspective.
What are other areas trying?
Because of aforementioned OSHA rules limiting oversight on small farms, training can be encouraged but often cannot be required.
"For the most part, farmers have to learn on their own, or they rely upon what they're learned from their parents or grandparents and things that have been passed down," Jepsen said. "There's not a formal training program unless they seek that out."
Without regulations that can prevent injuries, many have turned to prevention through education, similar to the approach Wayne County has taken.
OSU's Ag Safety and Health office offers training options and educational videos, but, again, simply having training available will not lead to prevention if farmers are not using it, Jepsen said.
“When we talk about farming, it’s a lifestyle," Jepsen said. "So, it’s really difficult to tell people that they need training on their lifestyle.”
Jepsen said training is most effective when it encourages lifelong learning.
OSU and others have targeted their education to the whole family, specifically including children to instill a culture of safety from a young age.
OSU's Ag Safety and Health program is beginning training using virtual reality — so students can learn how to operate equipment without risk of injury — and changing its "Ag in the Classroom" curriculum to incorporate safety training in addition to farm awareness, Jepsen said. OSU Extension also started a farm safety day camp program.
A state over, in Pennsylvania, Safe Kids Lancaster County partners with community volunteers to host free farm and family safety day events each summer.
Jepsen said having short but frequent safety commercials or training would help keep safety at the forefront of farmers' minds.
Tailgate safety is a system of short but frequent safety training sessions. Their frequency (daily or weekly) keeps safety in the forefront of people’s daily routines and their short length (under 20 minutes) requires less preparation and minimizes the loss of production time.
The cost of training and safety equipment may also be a barrier for small farms looking to implement better safety measures.
As previously stated, the Wayne County facility training classes are not free. Safety equipment such as harnesses and belts for tractors and grain bins, for example, can cost hundreds of dollars.
With tight budgets on smaller farms, farmers may have to choose between upgrading safety materials and paying for machine parts to continue operations.
Some areas have alleviated these financial barriers through incentive programs.
For example, the National ROPS rebate program based in New York offers rebates to farmers who install rollover protection.
The grain prop in Apple Creek at the Wayne County Regional Training Facility will soon add options for farmers looking to improve safety practices on their farms. But Springer said even though the facility is expanding training, there is always more to be done.
“We’re offering introductory courses,” Springer said. “By no means, even for first responders, is this the end of the training. Even with the training we provide, there are many different courses that go beyond this that people really need to look into to continue their training.
“We cannot possibly train them on every single situation that’s going to happen. The learning never stops with any type of emergency response.”
Lindsay Shoup, Ohio Farm Bureau organization director for Ashland, Medina, Summit and Wayne counties, said the bureau has begun brainstorming training programs that could be created throughout the four-county area in response to trustee Baker's report.
"We've made a huge step in providing a resource to first responders and to farmers that are able to travel and come to Apple Creek, but now we're starting to talk about some on-farm ideas," Shoup said.
The farm bureaus are considering collaborating with OSU Extension to create training specifically for farmers on accident prevention and awareness.
There is no timeline for when the trainings will be decided nor implemented at this time. Brainstorming has just begun, Shoup said.