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Farm fatalities on the rise: Ag industry ranked most hazardous in the US

The most effective way to prevent tractor overturn deaths, according to NIOSH, is the use of a modern equipment with a Roll-Over Protective Structure coupled with the use of a seat belt. James B. Miller, Jr. / Forum News Service

DICKINSON, N.D. — There’s a surprising trend taking root in North Dakota and Minnesota — agriculture fatalities.

Last month, a western North Dakota farmer was killed when his clothing became entangled with a farm implement on Dec. 15. Less than a month prior on Nov. 16, a young mother was killed in a farm accident after being pinned by a hay bale in western Minnesota. 60 days before that, in September, a juvenile died after being trapped in a grain auger-conveyor in central South Dakota.

According to the most recent United States Department of Labor report, agriculture ranked as the most hazardous industry in the United States in 2017-18.

“The agriculture industry in 2017-18, which is our most recent completed analysis, exhibited the highest rate of injuries and illnesses of the industries studied,” said Jake Fagliarone, a staff member with the Department of Labor. “Fatal injuries in agriculture were also the highest exhibited among the industries studied.”

Farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, and farming is one of the few industries in which family members, who often share the work and live on the premises, are also at risk.

In the early ‘90s, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health developed an extensive agricultural safety and health program seeking to address the high risk of injuries and illnesses experienced by workers and families in agriculture.

According to the North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance’s most recent detailed claims analysis, Wednesdays and Thursdays account for half of all injuries in agriculture. In terms of months, it’s unsurprising that September and October were the most dangerous for agriculture workers in North Dakota — in part owed to the harvest season’s high demands.

The unusually short growing season in North Dakota places agricultural constraints on farmers, often resulting in deadly consequences.

“We have quite a bit of uniqueness to our weather and as a result have a very short growing season,” said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. “We do have more extreme weather conditions that may impact crops and ultimately place time constraints on our farmers to harvest and sow — constraints that may be a contributing factor.”

The most recent annual statistics on agricultural injuries and death by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention found that 417 farmers and farm workers died from work-related injuries in 2016, echoing the findings by the Department of Labor and marking agricultural work as the most fatal occupation sector.

According to recent surveys by the NIOSH, nearly 250 agricultural workers suffer a serious injury or death every day.

The most prevalent cause of injuries and deaths in the agriculture sector, totaling 20 percent of all agriculture fatalities, was transportation, including tractor overturns, collisions and accidental pinning.

The most effective way to prevent tractor overturn deaths, according to the NIOSH, is the use of a Roll-Over Protective Structure with a seat belt. Legislation passed in 1975 required that all tractors manufactured from October 25, 1976, onwards be equipped with the ROPS system.

Kurt Froelich, NDSU Extension agent for Stark and Billings Counties, shared a word of caution for North Dakota farmers on what they can do to stay safe.

“We get going too fast sometimes and all it takes is one split second to go from good to bad,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just taking a step back, taking a deep breath and instead of going 100 miles per hour, slow down just a tish and use caution.”