Wisconsin Farm Related Fatalities report issued

A partnership between the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield Clinic Research Institute, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension and UW’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, has resulted in the return of the Wisconsin Farm Related Fatalities report, based on data from 2017 and 2018.

“This report presents a glimpse into fatal Wisconsin farm injuries in hopes to inform the public and various agriculture and public health teams that work hard to prevent these events from ever happening,” said Bryan Weichelt, Ph.D., an associate research scientist with the National Farm Medicine Center and project leader for AgInjuryNews.org.  National data show that workers in agriculture are up to eight times more likely to die on the job than workers in other industries.

UW faculty and others working on farm safety research had compiled similar reports from 1943 through 2006 based on newspaper clippings and other sources, but it was discontinued 2007-2016 as the university did not have a faculty member conducting safety-related research during that time frame.

Weichelt suggested to John Shutske, Professor and Director of the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, that AgInjuryNews.org could be used to help gather content for the report. AgInjuryNews.org allows users to search the largest database of publicly available U.S. agricultural injury and fatality reports, compiled primarily from media reports. A partnership resulted to compile the report for 2017 and 2018 using data from Wisconsin Department of Health Services death certificates and AgInjuryNews.org.

Its authors hope to raise awareness and spur action.

“Farm safety – reducing the risk of fatal and non-fatal injury — needs to go beyond simply advocating that people use common sense or urging them to be careful,” Shutske said. “They must take purposeful action – making machines, equipment, and the work environment as safe as possible by eliminating hazards and changing practices.”

Higher numbers, roadway deaths

In 2017, 41 farm fatalities were recorded; 34 in 2018. The most recent reported years were 25 in 2006, 30 in 2005, and 26 in 2004.

In these reports for 2017 and 2018, the researchers included incidents on public roadways involving agricultural equipment. In each year, those deaths accounted for 29 percent of all farm fatalities. Adding roadway deaths that involve farm-related equipment increases the number of fatalities, Weichelt said, but the authors want to prevent these injuries from happening. “If we don’t talk about the ones that happen, people don’t know,” he said.

“It is not surprising that we see so many roadway deaths – both to farmers and the general public who share the road with farmers and their machines,” Shutske said. “Most people think of farm safety as an issue of personal choice, but in the case of highway collisions involving slower moving ag equipment, it really crosses into the domain of public safety and health. So, it is an issue that deserves more attention – especially as farms and machines get bigger.”

Shutske noted that as farms get larger, field locations are often spread over larger distances, and farmers sometimes have to travel five or 10 miles, or more, on roadways during busy times.

“Fortunately, we see more technology available – like LED lighting that is bright and highly visible and requires less power; reflective and retroreflective tape that is low cost and can be applied easily to large machines; turn signals that can double as flashing amber lights, etc.,” Shutske said. “We also have robust and proven farm safety standards that engineers follow that form the basis for best practices and now are the foundation for federal highway regulations on newer machines (June 2017 and newer).”

Age a factor in fatalities

The report includes demographic information, including age, gender and primary occupation. In each year, people ages 65 and older had the highest number of farm fatalities.

“As we’ve long known, we see many of our fatalities on farms involving people age 65 and older,” Shutske said. “In other potentially dangerous workplaces, these are people who often retire or are close to retirement, yet it’s not uncommon to work with farm operators who are in their 60s, 70s and even their 80s. In most parts of the state, the average farmer is a full 15 to 20 years older than the average worker in other industries.

“We know older operators and employees share some common risk factors,” Shutske said. “For example, as we get older, our reaction time slows a bit. It can also be a bit more challenging to make fast, needed decisions. And, fatigue can play a role with older operators. We often see a constellation of compounding issues – long hours worked, fatigue, stress (due to financial conditions, weather, etc.), and when things get busy, a heightened tendency to get distracted – all can lead to serious injury or death.”

The report also includes children killed in a farm setting when the team could determine the death occurred as a result of production agriculture operations.

Farm equipment can be deadly

A staple of the report is the source of injuries. Tractors and passenger vehicles top the list both years of the updated report.

“We’ve made some progress in the last few decades with injury risk associated with farm machines,” Shutske said. Catastrophic events like power take-off entanglements and amputations dominated headlines in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

“Efforts by the industry to design safer equipment and develop shielding and other safeguards, which are easier to maintain and are built to last, has really helped. But when we see people bypassing or removing safeguards (shields, guards, lighting, etc.) or we see older equipment in use (without shields and ROPS as examples), it leaves little to no room for operator error,” Shutske said. ROPS is a rollover protection structure designed to keep the operator safe during a vehicle rollover.

The report doesn’t count, but does mention, other cases where farm-type equipment, like tractors, were involved in fatalities outside of a farm setting such as on a suburban residential property. Weichelt said the team had a lot of discussion about whether to include these cases.

“If someone is using a tractor, and it rolls over and it doesn’t have ROPS on it, the prevention strategy is the same,” Weichelt said. It doesn’t matter if a tractor is used on a farm or to mow the yard or to split-and-haul firewood, he said. Safety education and prevention are the same for farms and non-farm settings when farm equipment is used, he said.

Challenges in compiling the report

Data for the report are much more accessible than in the past, Shutske said. But identifying occupations remains challenging, said Weichelt. “It’s stubbornly difficult in any system to identify the occupational group that would be considered, with certainty, to be farmers.” Death reports are similar to electronic health records, he said. Most systems and agencies don’t track occupations very well.

Additionally, there are many terms: farmer, dairyman, grower, producer, rancher. In recent decades, more people are farming part-time and have another job to provide health insurance or pay the bills, so it complicates tracking occupations, Weichelt said.

Another complication was determining non-occupational injuries related to agriculture production work, such as children run over as bystanders.

The team set up protocols to scrub the data and then considered each case individually, sometimes in group video meetings, to discuss the merits or do additional investigation. They looked at publicly available obituaries, news reports and other sources to try and triangulate for accuracy and exclusion.  The work was done in a carefully controlled setting overseen by the research review boards of the partnering institutions to protect privacy and to keep data secure.  Weichelt said despite access to many sources for information, data systems used to track workplace fatalities will never be perfect. Not all agricultural fatalities are reported in the media.

The report notes that suicide events were not included and authors are investigating the need for further analysis.

“As we looked at available data, we learned of a large number of suicide cases,” Weichelt said of the death reports used for Wisconsin Farm Related Fatalities. However, it is a complicated topic, he said, that requires deeper investigation, often requiring discovery of more sensitive information which was beyond the scope of this project.

Farm safety awareness and action

Shutske and Weichelt hope the report will raise awareness and prompt action.

Weichelt hopes stakeholders such as insurance companies, equipment manufacturers and farm educators will gain insight from the report. He wants to reach “anyone who eats food and cares about the people who produce it,” he said.

“We do need to take this issue seriously,” Shutske said. “Our farmers work incredibly hard and bear the burden of feeding a growing world population. But, we need to do more than just build awareness, we’ve got to take action to protect the farmers, workers, and family members we all depend on. The industry needs to work purposefully to make things safe.”

Shutske encourages:

  • Upgrading and fully maintaining up-to-date lighting and marking systems including incorporating lighting/marking technologies now-mandated through national safety standards.
  • Avoiding roadway travel during low light and/or high traffic conditions.
  • Installing ROPS and seatbelts on tractors.
  • And providing much-needed training, demonstration and other safety education to all who work on the farm – regardless of experience level or background.

The Wisconsin Farm Related Fatalities report was funded, in part, by grant UL1TR002373 from the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health (NIH).

By Mystique Macomber

July 28, 2020

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