Farming without Harm


Written By

Helen Labun

Written on

June 01 , 2012

Ray Bernier, like many farmers, is inventive. When he realized he needed to transition out of the dairy business, he turned his Milton farm into a home for 400 emus. The emu market didn’t materialize (although he still swears by emu oil and buys some every year at the fairs) so he turned to raising horses. Somewhere along the line there were ostrich in there, too, but he could never get the chicks to grow to adults.

After Ray underwent knee surgery two years ago, his farm needed a bit of a re-invention again to make work easier on his body. Ray made some work adjustments on his own to accommodate the bad knee, including more horse boarding and less horse raising, but his physical therapist recommended that he call Vermont’s AgrAbility program to find out what more might be done.

The National AgrAbility Project was established in the 1990 Farm Bill, and Vermont’s own program began at that time. The Vermont AgrAbility Project is a collaborative partnership between University of Vermont Extension, Rural and Agricultural VocRehab, and the Vermont Center for Independent Living. It provides education and technical assistance to help farmers with a disability continue their work. Disability in this case might mean anything from difficulty hearing to the need for a wheelchair. In Ray’s instance, as he simply puts it, “my knee didn’t work too well.”

Gail Lapierre, an Extension agent, met Ray on his farm to see what could be done. It’s a beautiful farm, with fields sloping up a long hillside and Ray’s house at the very top. The sloping hills become less beautiful and more problematic, however, when you have a bad knee and are trying to push a wheelbarrow. Gail first reduced that strain by introducing a motorized wheelbarrow. She also added hand clutches to the tractor.

“I didn’t know they had these hand clutches,” Ray explained. “But [Gail] came up, took measurements, designed the clutches, and added them to the tractor.”

When Ray says “designed,” he means from scratch. Gail has a kit she put together of flagpole holders and PVC pipe so that she can mock up a prototype using photos and measurements from a particular tractor. She brings the prototype to a fabricator and, voila, custom hand clutches.

“Each case is very individual,” Gail explains. “I have a [research] toolbox from the national AgrAbility program, but I’ve also got files I’ve built on each individual case…I can’t always remember the company [that supplied equipment] but I can always remember who it was for.

AgrAbility is an important resource in an occupation that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) designates as one of the most dangerous in private industry. According to OSHA’s 2009 statistics, agricultural work has a rate of fatal accidents seven times the average and an average daily rate of 243 serious injuries, 5 percent of which result in permanent impairment. The National AgrAbility Project ensures that not only is there assistance to help prevent those accidents, there is also assistance afterward to help individuals continue to work on the farm.

The statistics for serious injury in farm work are dramatic. But even if farmers could maintain a perfect safety record for accidents, they would still need to manage the types of injuries we all encounter as we grow older, which are compounded in their case by years of stress on the body from farm work. Hearing loss from working near loud equipment, back pain from lifting, hip and knee pain that make getting on and off a tractor difficult…. Vermont farmers are likely to encounter one, or many, such challenges at some point in their lives.

George Cook, UVM Extension’s Farm Safety specialist, notes that the average age of a farmer is around 57. “We recognize that farming is one of those family businesses that maybe someone doesn’t retire from…. There are plenty of farm situations where there’s someone in their 80s or even older doing productive work on the farm.”

Of course, for disabilities such as hearing loss, it’s better to reach a farmer before he or she is 80, when there’s still time to prevent the damage. George notes that “as soon as [my son] was old enough to help with chores and he was helping in a noisy environment, the rule was he put on ear plugs or ear muffs. It became second nature to him. When I was his age it was not second nature.”

There are many simple precautions that younger farmers—who are not only working on family farms but often coming to farming for the first time through avenues like the local foods movement—should make second nature. There’s hearing protection and also adequate sun protection (Gail points out that a ball cap does not count as adequate), or climbing on and off a tractor instead of jumping off and jarring knees and hips. It all adds up. George recognizes that habits are hard to change. “Everybody gets busy,” he says, and the safety focus can get lost in the focus on finishing a day’s work. AgrAbility is trying to encourage an entire safety culture so that precautions are fully integrated into daily routines.

In larger operations, adopting safety measures can be more formal. For example, UVM Extension works with Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture and Department of Labor to offer a safety program for large dairy operations. As part of this program, the farms identify a manager who receives safety training and creates a farm safety plan. They also commit to conducting monthly safety trainings for farm employees. For smaller operations, AgrAbility relies on ongoing outreach through exhibitions at fairs and field days, workshops, and inclusion in educational programs such as the UVM television program, “Across the Fence.”

The National AgrAbility Project estimates that 15 to 20 percent of agricultural workers have a disability that hinders accomplishing some on-farm tasks. What that has meant for Vermont’s AgrAbility program is a need to be inventive to address the range of situations this statistic encompasses. These strategies may be fabricating hand clutches for farmers like Ray Bernier or they may be educational, such as teaching a new farmer how to make sure that used farm equipment has the necessary safety features (see below). At the end of the day, AgrAbility ensures that fewer farmers need to give up their work, and that more farmers do that work safely.


What’s the most dangerous part of farming?

Turns out, it’s the tractor. Not only is farming one of the most dangerous occupations, the highest number of fatal farm accidents involve vehicles, usually a tractor overturn. And the Northeast leads the nation in rollovers each year.

But tractor rollovers need not be deadly, or even cause serious injury. A seatbelt plus rollover protection bar are 99 percent effective in protecting a tractor driver.

That’s why Matt Myers, who coordinates UVM Extension’s Rebates for Roll Bars program, insists that installing a roll-over protection system (ROPS) is a “no brainer.” He notes that Vermont recently had three fatal rollovers within four months of each other. Those accidents, so close to home, have sent scores of tractor owners to UVM’s toll free number (1-877-767-7748) to find out their options for creating a safer tractor.

Unfortunately, while we now know that the simple change of a roll bar plus seatbelt can virtually eliminate the leading cause of fatal accidents on a farm, many older tractors don’t include these safety features. With tractors often staying in use for well over 40 years, a lot of retrofitting remains to be done.

Rebates for Roll Bars began in 2010 to help with those retrofits. The program subsidizes 70 percent of the ROPS cost. It began with seed money from UVM Extension, then gained support from donors, including Co-operative Insurance, the Lamoille Economic Development Corporation, more than seven county Farm Bureau chapters, the Maple Association, and Pete’s Equipment.

These supporters aren’t just protecting farmers’ lives. Studies show that 7 out of 10 farms close within a year after a fatal tractor accident, causing a ripple effect throughout the local economy. A simple investment in ROPS yields a major benefit, preventing both personal tragedy and loss to an entire farming community. Find out more at ropsr4u.com.

About the Author

Helen Labun

Helen Labun

Helen Labun spent many years contributing articles to Local Banquet, and she is now Local Banquet's publisher from her home in East Montpelier. Are you interested in writing about Vermont agriculture for LB? Email us localbanquet@gmail.com 

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