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Mitigating Risk

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Tony Nicoletto suffered massive injuries in a farming accident.

“Turn off the tractor!” Tony Nicoletto’s screams pierced through the roar of the engine. But it was too late. The rear tire had already knocked him over, rolled up between his legs, and crushed his pelvis. The 50-year-old farmer passed out, but not before hearing the sickening sound of his bones splintering under the heft of the machine.

The next thing he remembered was his wife, a nurse, asking him if he could move his legs.

When Nicoletto woke up many hours later, he learned that his liver, kidneys, and intestines were bruised; his urethra and diaphragm were torn; and his lungs were collapsed. To staunch the internal bleeding, the doctors had to remove his organs and pack his abdominal cavity with pads.

More than five weeks later, Nicoletto was discharged from the hospital. He spent many more months sleeping in a hospital bed in his living room. He couldn’t work; he couldn’t even walk. Neighboring farmers pitched in to keep his 75-cow, 360-acre farm running as the hospital bills piled up.

“The hospital bills were over $753,000 and our farm had just been appraised at $750,000,” says Nicoletto. “I’m grateful that my wife’s health insurance covered the medical bills; otherwise, we would’ve lost the farm.”

But Nicoletto says he’s most grateful for his life. “The only reason I am alive is because they got me to the hospital quickly and began surgery immediately.”

Nicoletto lived through his ordeal, but many others do not. Around 30 farmers die and hundreds are seriously injured in Pennsylvania each year. According to Dennis Murphy, the Nationwide Insurance Professor of Agricultural Safety and Health and extension safety specialist and a program leader, agriculture is the most hazardous industry in the United States, with the work death rate at seven to eight times more than the all-industry average.

“There is a lot of machinery on farms; farmers are exposed to a lot of weather elements; they work long hours; they often don’t have enough help to do the work that’s needed; and farms are largely unregulated when it comes to safety and health matters,” says Murphy.

Promoting Farm Safety

Through extension activities, teaching, and research, Murphy has led a number of initiatives to help farmers to be as safe as possible while they are working.

One such initiative is an online hazard analysis tool that enables farmers to self-inspect the safety of their facilities and equipment. The website allows farmers to select whatever topics they’d like to inspect, and then provides them with a detailed checklist of hazards related to those topics. The site includes photos and images that depict the level of hazard associated with a particular topic, ranked from “Most Protection” to “Least Protection.” Reminder boxes identify important points and behaviors associated with particular hazards and indicate specific personal protective equipment to be worn when working around some hazards. The site also describes laws, regulations, and standards that may apply, and covers helpful hints or recommendations for correcting the hazards farmers may encounter.

Such a tool will help farmers like Nicoletto avoid accidents. On the day of Nicoletto’s incident in September 1999, the farmer’s son had been driving the tractor and complained that the machine was losing oil pressure. Nicoletto had crawled underneath to see if he could find a leak.

“The tractor was old; the transmission had gone bad,” he said. “Instead of trying to save money and time by continuing to operate an old and broken machine, I should have had it fixed or replaced.”

Murphy is in the process of developing a mobile app for his hazard analysis tool to make it even easier for farmers to use. This quick-use tool will warn farmers of potential dangers.

“The mobile app will allow a farmer to take his or her laptop, iPad, or smartphone and run the analysis,” Murphy says. “It will also be useful for insurance agents and agriculture and extension educators.”

Murphy hopes that the hazard analysis tool will become part of a larger safety and health management plan that farmers will maintain. He and his colleagues are producing safety and health management planning guidelines to aid farmers in creating such a plan.

“Having a safety plan is not required, but we think farmers should address safety on the farm proactively rather than reactively,” he says. “This includes inspecting for and correcting the hazards, training employees, keeping records of everything you do, and having a safety policy for the farm.”

Murphy and colleagues are currently developing a Safety and Health Planning Manual to assist farmers in developing a safety plan.

Prevention is priority one, but when accidents do happen, Murphy says it’s important for farmers and emergency responders to be properly trained to deal with the situation. That’s why Davis Hill, assistant program leader and senior extension associate, coordinates Managing Agricultural Emergencies, an outreach initiative designed to help farm family members and employees, as well as local emergency-services professionals, develop strategies and procedures to respond to on-farm emergencies.

In addition, the team offers two programs for the farm community: Emergency First Aid Care for Farmers, which helps farmers understand those actions that they should and should not do when they discover emergencies on their farm, and Farm Family Emergency Response Training, which teaches important first aid care topics that family members can use while awaiting the arrival of trained responders.

Dennis Murphy
Dennis Murphy, the Nationwide Insurance Professor of Agricultural Safety and Health and extension safety specialist.

“It’s often a family member or co-worker that is injured and making rational decisions is often difficult because people just don’t want to see loved ones injured,” says Hill.

Knowing what to do in an emergency can often save lives. Such was the case back in 2012 when a farmer in Montour County found his sons, ages 2 and 4, unconscious on the roadway that ran behind his manure-storage facility. The man had been agitating the manure tank, releasing toxic levels of hydrogen sulfide gas, when the boys rode by on their bicycles. The children never knew what hit them; they passed out immediately. The farmer immediately moved his sons to fresh air and called 911. The older boy revived quickly, but the younger boy, who had turned blue, remained unconscious for nearly 20 minutes.

The PAgricultural Rescue Training program teaches first responders how to be better prepared to respond to and manage various emergencies on the farm and handle the specific types of injuries that are common on farms. Hill says there is no other training that deals with the unique emergencies seen on farms.

Matt Johnston, a Beaver County delivery truck driver by day and a volunteer emergency responder by night, took the PAgricultural Rescue Training program in 2005.

“The training helps you understand that you have to control the machine’s power source first before helping the victim, so it doesn’t cause any further damage to the patient or the rescuer,” says Johnston.

Children on the Farm

“Two million kids are working on farms in this country,” says Murphy. “Most kids learn to farm through their parents, and their parents learn from their parents. You get generations passing down risk taking when it comes to safety practices."

To break the trend, Murphy, Hill, and the agricultural safety and health team work on a number of initiatives that target youth who live and work on farms. For example, Murphy and Hill lead the Safety in Agriculture for Youth (SAY) program at Penn State, a grant project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The project will set up an infrastructure to serve as a national clearinghouse for agricultural safety and health curricula for youth.

The team also delivers some of these programs to Pennsylvania’s youth. One such program is the National Safe Tractor and Machinery Operation Program, a training program that is required for youth ages 14 and 15 who wish to legally operate farm tractors and powered machinery for hire. The program—which has reached thousands of children throughout the country so far—covers safety basics, agricultural hazards, tractors, connecting and using implements with tractors, and materials handling.

According to Gary Micsky, a Penn State extension educator located in Mercer County, reaching youth with safety messages is often easier than changing adult behavior.

“Between 1995 and 1999, northwest Pennsylvania lost 21 farmers to work-related injuries,” he says. “I knew each and every one of those men. It’s horrible to think you’re losing two of your friends every year. It got so bad here that people were just sick of it. We’ve been trying to do farm safety education with mixed results, mostly not very well attended by the adult male farmer.”

Micsky, whose own father lost several fingers due to farming accidents, teaches the National Safe Tractor and Machinery Operation Program in Mercer and surrounding counties. He also coordinates training programs for the Managing Agricultural Emergencies initiative for farm families and emergency responders as well as other safety programs. Part of that coordination includes lining up guest speakers, including Tony Nicoletto. Micsky’s persistence has paid off. Once a leader in farm fatalities, Mercer County no longer claims that ranking.

Nicoletto says it’s hard for him to speak publicly about his accident. But when faced with a group of children that is exactly what he does…in great detail. He hopes the kids will take his message to heart.

Researching Safety

According to Murphy, tractor-related incidents are among the most common causes of injury and death on farms for children and adults alike. “More and more, farmers and other people in Pennsylvania are using tractors in the woods,” says Murphy. “They are trying to drag logs, pull trees or stumps, or push them with a front-end loader. When you have a front-end loader bucket up, you’re raising the center of gravity, and that allows the tractor to turn over easier. People are also more often operating tractors at faster speeds and on uneven terrain.”

Murphy is conducting research that may significantly reduce tractor rollovers. He and his colleagues have developed a stability indicator that tells tractor operators in real time the degree of stability or instability of the tractor as they drive on a side slope. They have also developed a device that can intervene and prevent a rear overturn. Their research now is focused on how best to communicate this stability or instability information to tractor operators.

Murphy and colleagues also have investigated improved ventilation of manure pits. They already have developed a standard for how to ventilate manure pits to reduce the risk of entry for human beings when they go into a pit.

“There are very toxic gases in manure pits that can kill you almost instantly,” says Murphy.

The team is now developing an online tool for designers who are drafting plans for manure storage buildings and pits. They will be able to plug in the proposed dimensions, values, and variables for structures and the system will design an appropriate ventilation system for them. The online tool also will give information about how much airflow there should be and how long the ventilation system should run before the gases are reduced to an acceptable level. The online ventilation system planning tool became available in late September 2014.

“We know through other occupations that you don’t have to hurt yourself to be in a particular industry,” says Murphy. “There are ways to do things that lessen the amount of risk and the amount of damage you do to yourself or those around you.”

But Micsky worries that once things improve, carelessness will begin to creep back in. “There tends to be some apathy built in until we reach a point where people get shaken up again,” he says.

That won’t be the case if Tony Nicoletto can help it. “Young people need to know what can happen to them if they don’t think about safety. With one mistake, I nearly lost my life and my farm, which I intend to pass down to my daughter. It’s not worth the risk.”

By Sara LaJeunesse
Photographs by Cardoni