I had a good chat with Clarke McGrath, a long-time friend and ISU Extension field agronomist, at the recent Farm Progress Show at Boone. In addition to his ISU duties and also writing one of the ISU Extension agronomy columns each month in Wallaces Farmer, Clarke devoted years of service to his community at Harlan, Iowa as a member of the local fire department and as an Emergency Medical Technician or EMT. He helped save people’s lives when the ambulance was called to assist with accidents. He also was involved in a near-fatal automobile accident not too many years ago.
Clarke, who is now the on-farm research and Extension coordinator for the Iowa Soybean Research Center, provides the following insight on farm safety. This time of year, when farmers are busy bringing in the crops, Clarke signs off his agronomy columns with this ending sentence: “Have a safe and successful harvest.”
Sept. 18-24 was National Farm Safety and Health Week and Iowa Farm Safety and Health Week. Clarke provides the following farm safety tips during harvest, based on his experience as a firefighter, EMT and years of involvement in the ag industry.
Q: What thoughts on harvest safety would you have as an agronomist and recently retired firefighter?
A: I’m pretty young to be a retired firefighter. The accident that I wasn’t supposed to survive—which sent me into early retirement from my firefighting career—was a prime example of how fast something can happen with no warning. And yet, it was easily preventable if the other party had followed safety protocols.
Throughout my career in the fire service, I've been involved in a lot of farm related responses since serving in areas that covered both city and rural incidents. From experience and seeing it firsthand, I can tell you that accidents occur incredibly fast and can happen to anyone. It is true that we can do everything exactly right and still there is a chance of something going wrong, but the odds of something going wrong can escalate quickly when we increase risk by not following safety procedures as closely as feasible.
So I don’t want to come across as a safety expert, just want to help raise awareness and hope that if all of us implement a few more safety procedures or exercise a little more patience, it will reduce risk, which should reduce incidents and injuries.
Q: Have you known anyone personally who has suffered from farm-related health issues?
A: Remember to wear a good quality dust mask/respirator as often as possible. I have an acquaintance who has pretty severe COPD. It is tough to watch someone—who was one of the hardest workers I ever knew—struggle to walk across a parking lot because he cannot get enough air. He tells me “I wish I had worn a dust mask, but for years we really didn’t hear a lot about needing to wear one. There just wasn’t a lot of awareness out there about it.”
Q: Any particular safety tips for employees, family, or farm kids?
A: Know where everyone is on site. Visibility is tough around large machinery—nearly impossible at night. Don’t let folks ride on equipment that isn’t designed for a passenger, and don’t let them operate something that they aren’t well trained on either. Keep kids away from any grain carts or bins. Stored and/or flowing grain is inherently hazardous, whether in a bin, a pile or a grain cart.
Q: My family members are very involved during harvest season. What can I do to be prepared or prepare them if there is a farm accident this fall?
A: The following three points have extra significance to me because I have experienced and seen firsthand how they save lives, no question.
· Donate blood, if you can.
· Carry a cell phone or two-way radio. Make sure it’s charged and secured on your person at all times.
· Learn CPR
Q: What would you share, based on your experiences, with other drivers during harvest season?
A: From a non-farm citizen perspective, safety on the roads is imperative. We have to be aware that during harvest and fall fieldwork season, there will be a lot of large and slow moving equipment on the roads. There will also be a lot of grain trucks on the roads, and it is a tough job to drive those things! They don’t accelerate or stop like a car or SUV, so hopefully we can help spread the word to help our non-farm drivers remember to watch for them and try to help them out when we can.
Road safety tips during harvest:
· Slow down immediately when you see farm equipment ahead of you on the road. Farm equipment isn’t very fast, think 15 to 20 mph on the road on average perhaps. If you are driving 55 mph, you are covering around 80 feet per second; it won’t take very long to be right on top of a slow moving vehicle.
· Be patient and wait to safely pass farm equipment. Unsafe passing was one of the primary factors of a lot of our motor vehicle accidents we responded to in the fall.
· Along those same lines, be careful when approaching on-coming farm equipment. Oncoming vehicles might not be as patient as you are and pull out suddenly to pass the farm equipment—right into your path.
· Farm equipment often has to make wide turns, so be aware of that and help out by being patient and giving them room to turn.
· Since some of the equipment is fairly wide, you may still have to edge out on the other side of the road, further than normal; even though growers are very good at getting over as far as they safely can to let you by. Road shoulders can be notoriously tricky; they are even more challenging when the ground is as wet as it is now.
· Harvest seems to amplify deer movement both day and night. Watch your speed and scan your surroundings for them as you drive. Like anything else, situational awareness will help reduce risk.
Safety is always a priority for farmers at harvest, but this year may push us harder than most. If our current wet weather pattern continues into the fall, it could be a muddy, difficult 2016 harvest season.
Anyway, wet or not, here are some common safety themes that come to mind from both the farmer perspective and the non-farm view as well:
· Fatigue. From a farmer perspective, fatigue is a huge issue. Growers, their families, and employees work long, hard hours in the fall every year. Potentially wet harvest seasons like this could just ramp up the stress and lead to even longer work days when they can get into the field.
· Being extra careful around any equipment is critical. Polish up or replace those large slow moving vehicle signs, and make sure all the lights and bulbs on all the equipment is working well.
· Shutting things down when doing any sort of service work. Lock hydraulic cylinders in place or other recommended safety precautions when working on corn or bean heads.
· Watch overhead lines when moving augers or other tall equipment, and steer clear of any operating augers.
· Safety procedures in grain bins: 3 Tips to Avoid Grain Bin Accidents
There is a long list of things that can go wrong in an instant. In training, on active duty as a firefighter, and as an EMT, I encountered all sorts of scary/unfortunate situations. In almost every incident, very experienced people were involved in accidents that evolved from doing something they had done over and over, safely in the past. Most of the time, completely unforeseen events led to rapidly escalating emergencies. Things like equipment malfunctions, fatigue, a seemingly insignificant change in procedure, or some other unexpected variable enters the equation. Occasionally, these factors lead to a cascade of events that can lead to equipment damage or personal injury.
Thankfully, most of the time this doesn’t occur. Following safety procedures and staying vigilant can certainly put the odds more in favor of the growers. We can’t prevent all incidents, but implementing strong safety principles can reduce the odds of incidents or reduce the magnitude.
Editor’s Note: McGrath is a Certified Crop Adviser (Iowa and National) and a retired/honorary firefighter of the Harlan Fire Department where he was a Heartland Heroes nominee and was awarded the American Red Cross Certificate for Extraordinary Personal Action, the organization's top award for saving a life. He also serves as a peer adviser/mentor for fellow accident survivors recovering from traumatic injuries. He was raised on farms in Union County, Iowa and Dixon County, Neb.