Many advancements have been made in farming over the years, safety being chief among them. Although farming has never been safer than it is today, there are still many hazards of which producers and others in the industry need to be mindful.
John Nowatzki, extension specialist in agricultural power and machinery for North Dakota State University, said the most common types of accidents seem to be tractor rollovers and grain bin issues, including engulfment in grain and accidents with grain augers. He said harvest is probably when most accidents occur, for a couple of different reasons.
"One is, there's so much more stuff going on, and the other reason is people tend to be in a hurry, I guess," Nowatzki. "I suppose that's probably the biggest cause of accidents, is being in a hurry, and there's not a lot you can do about that except to continually advise people to think about it."
Dan Feldner/MDN • Gary Hardy, assistant safety and compliance coordinator at SunPrairie Grain in Minot, holds the shielded PTO shaft of a grain auger Monday. The shielding prevents any body parts or clothing from getting caught up in the spinning shaft.
Dan Feldner/MDN • The shield around the opening of this auger at SunPrairie Grain offers protection from the rapidly-moving belt inside.
Dan Feldner/MDN • The openings in this screen are designed to be large enough to let grain flow in freely while also being small enough to keep a hand away from the dangerous augers.
Dan Feldner/MDN • The rear of a grain truck is always a potentially dangerous place to be.
Nowatzki said tractor rollover injuries are eminently preventable if the proper equipment is used, something he said doesn't happen often enough.
"Every fall you get rollovers, it seems like, related to people mowing ditches. And the reason, probably the primary reason, people unfortunately tend to not use seat belts on their tractors,"
Nowatzki said. "And the other thing is a lot of these smaller tractors out on the farms are not equipped with rollover protection devices."
As for working around grain bins, Nowatzki said having a second person around is extremely important if someone goes inside the bin to clear out some grain that is stuck.
"If you have to go inside a grain bin, you should never do that by yourself. It seems like everyone that I read about, where people are killed or die in grain, it's when they're alone," Nowatzki said.
He also said all grain bins should have a safety line in them so if a person falls in, they have a way out.
"Farmers should be encouraged to equip their grain bins that way," Nowatzki said. "There are commercial options available if they go to the company they buy the grain bins from."
Grain augers have taken a lot of limbs and lives in the past, but in recent years, safety features such as complete shielding around the auger's exposed end have become more commonplace. Nowatzki said the most important things to keep in mind around augers are just taking your time and being cautious.
Brad Haugeberg, general manager of SunPrairie Grain in Minot, said today's equipment is safer than it's ever been and is maintained better. He said entanglements with PTOs and grain augers were a more common occurrence when he first entered the business, and occasionally someone working under a truck box that wasn't blocked up properly had it come down on them.
"I personally know a couple of people that gave their lives to that mistake," Haugeberg said about truck box accidents. "You don't hear as much about power take-off accidents anymore. Like I said, the equipment comes better guarded from the manufacturers. It's a lot better."
He said these days massive grain bins on farms - it's not uncommon for a producer to have a 20,000- or 30,000-bushel bin - are the cause of more accidents.
"Sometimes if the grain's dirty or wet it might hang up and then they go in the bin to try and get it to come down and they wind up being engulfed, is what we call it, where the grain buries them," Haugeberg said. "I think everybody underestimates just how much weight that is. You don't just pop yourself out of it."
Haugeberg said you only have to be engulfed part way and you won't be able to free yourself. He noted when he was younger he intentionally got engulfed up to his knees just to see what it was like, and could barely get himself out. It was a lesson in just how powerful a pile of grain can be that he still takes to heart today.
Like Nowatzki, Haugeberg said you should never work in grain bins if no one else is around to get you out or call for help if you become stuck.
Gary Hardy, assistant safety and compliance coordinator for SunPrairie Grain, said tow cables can also be a hazard. He noted the cable should be slipped through the middle of an old tire before being used to drag a large piece of equipment like a tractor or combine out of the mud. If the cable snaps, the tire will keep the cable low to the ground when it recoils, hopefully sending it underneath the equipment doing the pulling instead of through the cab and at the driver's head.
Anhydrous ammonia safety is another issue Nowatzki brought up. He said a lot of anhydrous ammonia is applied in the fall as a fertilizer, and it has a few different things that really make it dangerous.
"One is, it's under pressure, so if a hose breaks, for example, it will shoot 30 feet or so. Secondly, under pressure, it's cold - I think minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit," Nowatzki said. "And so if you get it on your skin, it's going to freeze - you're going to get immediate freeze burns on your skin, and there's not much you can do about that."
The third thing Nowatzki mentioned about anhydrous ammonia is that it's a form of nitrogen and oxygen without an oxygen molecule. This means it takes the oxygen molecules out of anything it touches, whether it be the ground, or exposed skin, eyes or lungs. It takes moisture away and can cause severe chemical burns.
"And so the most important thing is to get away from it, and then immediately you need to get water on wherever you got anhydrous ammonia stuck," Nowatzki said.
For this reason anhydrous ammonia tanks are required to a have five-gallon container of water attached for use in case the applicator is exposed to the chemical.
"So farmers, applicators, farm hands, farm workers, whatever, have to make sure that those water tanks are full all the time. When they fill up an anhydrous tank they need to make sure that water tank is full, because the most important thing is water," Nowatzki said, noting anyone who is exposed to anhydrous ammonia should seek immediate medical attention.
He said anhydrous has a strong and unique odor, and if you can smell it at all then you're probably in danger, even if it's a small amount.
Children are a common sight around farms, and Nowatzki said that along with the common-sense approach of keeping them safely away from all equipment in general, they also shouldn't be given rides on tractors - something every farmer in the state has probably been guilty of doing at one time or another.
"It's so hard not to," Nowatzki said.
"I guess it's good to remind farm families that children should not be where farm equipment is," he added. "Despite the desire they have to be there."
A tractor's power take-off, which can be used to power such things as grain augers, is another thing that should be treated with extreme care. When getting off a piece of equipment with a power take-off, whether to service it or just take a look, a farmer needs to turn off the engine, which is particularly true around large, round hay balers during haying season. That advice goes for any kind of equipment with moving parts, including combines and even grain trucks, which can suddenly jump into gear and run over an unsuspecting driver.
Nowatzki said it's not like a large amount of people die every year in farm-related accidents these days - he didn't have any specific statistics on hand - but anything that can be done to reduce those numbers further is worth it.
Nowatzki said of producers trying to get their work done as quickly as possible, "They need to take their time."
"An extra couple minutes isn't worth a life," Haugeberg said in agreement. "Just slow down and make sure you look at what you're doing. Just take your time and look around you, because it's just too easy to back up and get caught in something."
"Safety goes into everything," Hardy added.