STARKVILLE – With shorter days and the rush to “make hay while the sun shines,” late summer and early fall are the most lethal season for farming in Mississippi and nationwide.
From 1990 to 2000 – the latest extended period for which statistics could be found – more than a third of the 146 recorded farm deaths in Mississippi occurred in August or September.
Those most at risk either farm part-time or maintain rural homesteads and hunting lands.
“About one out of every five deaths due to tractors and equipment are full-time owners or full-time operators,” Mississippi State University professor Herb Willcutt said this week, which the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety has designated as National Farm Safety and Health Week.
Most farm fatalities involve tractors or other ag equipment, and older operators are most at risk: Nearly two-thirds of those killed in farm accidents are 55 or older. One reason is that the average farmer is 57, according to USDA.
“The other reason is that older retirees are going out on older equipment, less well-maintained, with less safety equipment in place,” said Willcutt, extension professor of agricultural and biological engineering.
Rollovers constitute just less than half of the fatalities, with another 17 percent involving being run over by equipment.
A typical farm-fatality scenario involves a lone operator mowing with a small, older tractor. The tractor may not have a rollover protective system or, if it does, the operator is not wearing the requisite lap belt.
“They’ll be doing something they shouldn’t with tractors – they hit a hole or a stump, at too fast a speed usually,” Willcutt said. The tractor rolls sideways, throwing the operator from the seat and crushing him or, in a few cases, pinning him under water.
Rearward rollovers can occur when people hook heavy, hard-to-pull loads such as logs to a tractor above its rear axle. When the wheels turn, the front of the vehicle lifts up like a motorcycle doing a “wheelie,” and the tractor ends up upside down.
Runovers can happen when operators bypass a malfunctioning ignition system and crank a tractor while standing on the ground, when operators are unaware of bystanders or when a child falls off a tractor and is killed under the tractor or equipment.
ATVs are increasingly popular on farms for fencing, herding livestock, checking on crops, cultivating wildlife food plots and other chores. While ATV accidents have their own tracking systems, they often may be farm-related.
No story of personal disaster is “typical,” but the farm accident that paralyzed Joey Ladner nearly six years ago had several common factors. He was fatigued, he was alone and he took a seemingly innocent risk.
The Kiln resident was using his small tractor and a scoop attachment to move gravel at his homestead.
“My butt was getting tired from the bumps, so I stood up,” he said. The tractor hit a dip, and Ladner lost his balance. To keep from falling, he intentionally jumped off the tractor.
“I did a dumb thing, but it was something I’d done a million times,” Ladner said. “When I was mowing, I’d see a piece of trash and hop off and pick it up while the tractor kept going and then get back on.”
This time when he tried to remount the tractor, mud on his shoe caused him to slip, and he was unable to catch himself. The rear tractor wheel ran over his neck, and the scoop rolled him over several times before leaving him unable to move.
“I could hear the tractor still putting around, but I couldn’t see anything. It made a circle and came within three feet of me. It eventually hung up on a corner post,” Ladner said. Eventually a neighbor found him and called for help.
Two surgeries and four weeks of hospitalization stabilized his neck enough for him to undergo five weeks of physical therapy, but he remains unable to move from the chest down.
Ladner’s experience shows that carelessness can strike even safety professionals. For 25 accident-free years, he had worked in the field for Mississippi Power Co., often holding 25,000-volt lines in his insulated gloves and sometimes working, with proper equipment, around 500,000 volts.
“I was the crew leader, and I supervised people,” he said. “I’d always make sure they were working safe.”
Thanks to a program called AgrAbility, Ladner can use a hoist to mount and strap himself into a riding mower with hand controls. He often shares his story in school-based safety programs sponsored by Mississippi Power.
Ladner’s accident wasn’t the only graphic illustration his community got of how quickly farm work can turn dangerous.
“Six months after my accident, my neighbor got killed with a tractor,” he said. The friend was adjusting a hay baler when his helper accidentally engaged the power-take-off.
MSU’s Willcutt can quickly name several accidents, near-misses and unwise risks that he and his colleagues have had, from a tractor-laden trailer that traveled 100 miles with an unlatched hitch to 4-year-old thrown out of a tractor cab that he shouldn’t have been in after a distracted motorist slammed into it from the rear.
Willcutt emphasized that a close call shouldn’t breed a fatalistic approach to safety.
“It can happen to anybody, but you need to be very judicious,” he said.
Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal