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Thursday March 22, 2018

As the long days, sleepless nights and feverish work to get crops out of the fields and the year's beef cattle out of pastures and into feedlots get into full swing across Nebraska over the next six weeks, chances are unfortunately good that farmers will get hurt or die in the process.

Statistics show farming remains America's most dangerous occupation, both here and across the nation, with Nebraska farm workers suffering an accident rate of more than six injuries for every hundred workers, about 50 percent higher than the accident rate for grocery stores.

Our popular "Why Do Farmers Do That?" series takes on the question: Why do farmers injure themselves so regularly? The question's not as simple as it may seem, and surprisingly unsettled among the experts. Here are a few known—and suspected—contributors:

The nature of the occupation. Farmers work outside (and suffer heatstroke). They work with often large and sometimes aggressive animals (and get stepped on, crushed, gored and suffocated or drowned by exposure to fumes from their stored manure). They handle pesticides and other lethal chemicals (and suffer exposure-related illness). They drive tractors and work around other heavy equipment (and get crushed, buried and maimed by open machinery). They work on tall structures (and fall or get electrocuted by coming into contact with overhead power lines).

Images of the traditional pastoral farm aside, today's full-time farms more closely resemble industrial workplaces than they do Old McDonald's farm, says John Shutske, longtime farm-safety expert and professor of safety engineering and agricultural health at University of Wisconsin.

"Today's farm has its big share of dangerous machines, potentially toxic environments and animals that are easily five to six times bigger and twice as fast as the NFLs biggest lineman," Shutske says. "But, I don't know that people living and working on farms view their farm that way. It's their home and their life. That's not a bad thing at all, but if we could convince every farmer and member of their family that—at least from a safety perspective—their workplace is a potentially deadly industrial workplace," he says, we could make a significant impact in farm-related injuries.

Economic pressure. Not unlike many of the grocers they supply, farmers exist in what some economists deem "commodity hell." Constant competition and relatively undifferentiated commodity products leaves farmers competing on a low-margin, cost-based basis. Cost-based competition requires continually increasing productivity, which leads to even lower prices, which requires even more productivity to survive. Such continual bleeding-edge cost-control leaves little margin to make improvements in equipment, so safety investments often fall to the bottom of list.

Take roll-bars and seat belts on tractors, for instance, which the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimates would prevent more than nine in 10 cases of the No. 1 cause of death on farms—overturned tractors that crush the driver. NIOSH estimates only 60 percent of the nation's 4.6 million tractors are so equipped.

Those economic contributors likely reach beyond equipment investment, as well. The seasonal nature of farming and vulnerability to weather delays condenses a year's worth of work into a few hectic and often sleep-deprived weeks, inviting accidents caused by distraction, fatigue and willingness to accept shortcuts in the name of time efficiency. Even the mental stress associated with economic booms and busts may contribute, Shutske believes. His work over the past year has drawn a connection between constant, chronic stressors and the deleterious impacts that occur on memory, attention and other higher brain function.

"Being highly distracted, forgetful, slow to act or economically unable to make needed improvements, repairs and corrections is not easily forgivable when you're talking about a 300-horsepower machine or a 1,500-pound animal," he says.

Lack of regulation and safety training. Small and mid-sized farms are not subject to most federal occupational safety regulations. Some might argue regulation doesn't make much difference in safety in the longrun, but that lack of regulation also contributes to a lack of safety training on most farms, which is hard to argue doesn't contribute to high accident rates. Farmers, who tend to work alone, seldom if ever have any safety supervision other than their own to rely on.

Cultural factors. Although it appears to be falling out of favor in modern times, the culture created by America's "agrarian myth"—the underlying belief that farmers must accept a life of deprivation and hardship, away from the comforts (and safety protections) of the city life, in order to permit urban society to prosper—has been suggested as a cause of high farm accident rates. Fewer safety experts, Shutske included, fully buy that explanation; however, the explanation remains tempting.

When Obama-Administration OSHA announced it planned to start regulating grain bins in 2013 to protect, in part, children who were being suffocated after being buried in and around them, reaction against the plan from the farm community was loud and angry. Opponents argued OSHA was intruding into farmers' traditional independence, and that farmers know better than bureaucrats how to keep their employees and families safe.

That sense of indendence and the sense of fatalism that accompanies it, an ethic not restricted to America alone, has been cited as a possible cause of farmer's willingness to take risks that can lead to accidents. And anecdotal evidence of farmers who actually display amputated fingers as badges of determination and long-suffering can't be dismissed as evidence farmers, at least in the past, have accepted injury as just part of the job.

"But I think we turned that corner a long time ago," Wisconsin's Shutske argues, "I don't think farmers just "accept" injury as part of life anymore. I truly don't think the cultural beliefs and the norms of a modern farm operator are all that different than a business person in any other industry."

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Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

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The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

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