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President’s Note: Safety on the Farm and in the Garden

President’s Note: Safety on the Farm and in the Garden

A recent local farm accident prompted me to write this article. I don’t want to scare anyone away from farming or gardening, but I do want to point out how important safety is, and remind everyone that by not implementing good safety methods in the farm or garden, serious injuries are possible.

Many who grow food don’t realize how dangerous farming can be. Due to my experiences, I have been accused of being overly focused on safety, to the point of making some individuals mad at me when I point out what they are doing wrong, because I can be less than tactful. I make no apologies for my attitude on safety. I would rather have you mad at me for the rest of your life than visit you in the hospital – or, worse, at your funeral. If you are mad at me, at least you are alive and uninjured.

As I have mentioned in the past, I grew up on a farm. I have had my share of close calls, and, in one case, a very serious and potentially life-threatening injury. In most cases, the close calls resulted from one or more of the following errors:

– not paying attention because I was rushing to finish the job
– using equipment in need of repair
– losing focus on the work at hand because I was so familiar with the job (or just so tired).

One spring I was cleaning manure out the barn with a pitchfork. After working most of the morning, I jabbed the pitchfork into the manure and accidentally shoved a tine through my rubber boot. Fortunately it was at the edge of the boot and missed my foot, but I had a leaky pair of boots for the rest of the spring.

In another case, I was splitting firewood. We heated our house with wood and had a propane furnace for backup. The wood was wet and it was cold. I preferred to split most wood with a double bit axe. On one of my swings, the axe split though the wood faster than I realized and hit a knot. The knot caused the axe to twist in my hand and swing back toward my leg. I moved fast, but the bit caught the edge of my work boot. It nicked the outside edge of the sole. No injury to me, minor cosmetic damage to the boot, but it could have been much worse. Those boots lasted for several more years, but I had a constant reminder of the need to be careful splitting wood when I put them on each day.

I was running a rear tine tiller one day in a garden plot surrounded by a chain link fence. On one pass I was close to the fence and accidentally put the tiller in reverse. It jumped and pinned me against the fence. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to quickly shift it to neutral.

Chainsaws can be dangerous. After I used a chain saw with my dad supervising more times than I can count, he let me cut up an entire tree on my own. He always warned me to cut from the outside in, because as you cut limbs away, the log might start to roll and could pin you. I had all the small limbs trimmed away and was working on those supporting the log off the ground, carefully sawing and watching the log for movement. To get to one support limb I stepped up to the log with a long limb behind me, but the angle and distance was great enough I thought it would be fine. As I cut the limb, it suddenly broke, and the log rolled in a way I had not anticipated. The limb behind hit me on the back of the head. It wasn’t hard enough to hurt, but enough to scare me. I shut the saw off and sat down for a while, breaking out into a cold sweat. Lesson learned.

Now for the accident that changed my attitude on safety and almost took my life. It was the result of rushing to finish a job, and my failure to follow basic safety protocols. In others words, I was young, bulletproof and prone to making quick decisions without thinking them through. I won’t go into all the details, but just some key points that led up to the accident.

I was rushing to the field to rake some hay before my dad got home from work. I had an 8N Ford tractor with an empty hay wagon on the back. As I pulled up to the gate to the field, I made the decision to leave the tractor running. We had been having problems with the starter sticking in the flywheel on occasion. It was easy to get loose, I just didn’t want to risk spending the time doing it if it happened. The brakes on an 8N are hard to lock in place, so I didn’t mess with that. I didn’t bring along a block to set in front of the tire, either. The ground had a small incline, but I thought that the terrace in front of the wheels should have kept the tractor from rolling.

The tractor was stopped, and I got off and opened the gate. As I turned around, the tractor started to roll forward slowly. At this point I could have let the tractor roll downhill, possibly getting damaged, and accepted the consequences of my actions up to this point. But I decided to jump up on the tractor and stop it.

It was moving slowly. As I jumped up, I grabbed the steering wheel and I almost made it, but my leg hit the rear tire. The tire pulled me off the tractor. I rolled downhill and under the tractor. Trying to get out from under the tractor, I moved sideways and realized the rear tire was going to roll over my head. At that point, I thought I was dead. It did roll over my head, but after it passed over, I knew I was still alive and coherent. I thought the wagon hitch pin might hook my clothes and drag me, so I pulled myself out further, lying on my right shoulder. The front tire of the hay wagon hit my chest and bounced up and off my left shoulder.

I knew I could not get out from under the wagon, but I also knew the wagon had a lot of clearance under it, so I rolled back under the wagon and got between the rear tires as they passed on either side of me. As I stood up, I looked back and saw that because I had grabbed the steering wheel, the front tires had turned the tractor into the hillside. It was stopped twenty feet away, with the motor running. I walked over and shut it off.

I proceeded to walk up to the elderly neighbor’s house for help. Fortunately for me her granddaughter was visiting, and I asked her to take me to the hospital. I had a broken collar bone and a dislocated shoulder, and was kept overnight for observation in case of a concussion. It wasn’t until years later that I found out I have some vertebrae out of alignment in my neck, which can make it uncomfortable to sit still for long periods working at a desk. The only reason I think the tractor didn’t crush my skull (please refrain from any jokes about me being hard-headed; I hear it from my wife all the time) is because it was a small tractor and the tires were almost smooth. Dad hadn’t replaced them yet so the lugs were almost gone.

So, what did I do wrong?

1) I was rushing to finish a job, which led me to make poor decisions.

2) I left the tractor running without setting the brakes or blocking the wheels.

3) I tried to jump up on a moving tractor.

Incidentally, when things like this happen to me, time seems to slow down. I ran multiple scenarios through my head in seconds and made quick decisions, some good and some bad. I can still see the entire incident in my mind’s eye exactly as it happened.

I know two dairy farmers who have suffered serious injuries. One lost his arm just above the elbow after it was caught in a compression roller on a round baler. He was trying to remove a stick with the baler running, and it jerked him in. The second dairy farmer, who incidentally helped save the life of the first farmer, was recently injured when a tractor rolled over him.

I have known both of these individuals for my entire life. They farmed all their lives, and both accidents happened when they were adults with years of experience. If you are involved in agriculture, you will know someone who has suffered a serious accident. Not counting myself, I personally know five individuals who have suffered life-threatening accidents while involved in agriculture. Four of those individuals required emergency medical care, without which they might not have survived.

I learned from each of the incidents I was involved in, and none have been repeated. I’m far from perfect, and I still make mistakes. Accidents happen in farming and gardening, but we can help prevent many of them by

– paying attention,
– not rushing to finish a job,
– using common sense safety measures, and
– keeping equipment in good repair.

If you are new to farming or gardening, make sure you understand how to properly operate and maintain machinery before you use it. Wear eye and ear protection. You only have one set of eyes, and it is very easy for them to be damaged by flying particles and various fluids (cleaners, oils, sprays, etc.).

Incidentally, while lack of hearing protection may not by itself be life threatening, hearing loss is cumulative. My dad and uncle are living proof of this. After my dad went to a hearing specialist when I was around 15 years old, he came home with hearing muffs to be placed near all tractors, lawn mowers, weed eaters, grinders, chainsaws and tillers. I was in trouble if he caught me not wearing the muffs when operating loud equipment. It is a habit I still have. There is a pair of muffs hanging on my lawnmower handle right now.

If you have the opportunity, take a safety or first aid course and learn how to be safe and to treat any injuries. Implement safety every day as you work in your garden or on your farm. There are numerous safety videos and articles online. Check them out. Agriculture can be an incredibly rewarding endeavor, but let’s try to keep it safe.

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