Education is key as U, state

Ingrid Skjong

University agricultural safety specialist John Shutske is all too familiar with the risks of farming. From farmers struggling to recover from debilitating injuries to families coping with the loss of a child, the scenarios Shutske encounters are often grim.
“It’s extremely sad because it’s so extremely preventable,” said Shutske, also an associate professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering.
With farming’s hazardous reputation second only to the mining industry’s, farm fatalities, especially those involving young children, are a major concern among agricultural professionals. But for Minnesota, a 52 percent decrease in farm fatalities between 1996 and 1997 made it the safest year on record for the state’s farm workers since data collection began at the University in the late 1960s — a substantial decline that could indicate a welcome trend.
“Our goal is to get everyone in rural Minnesota to think about these issues,” said Shutske, who attributes the downturn to technological advances and increased safety awareness.
The majority of farm fatalities are machinery-related, often involving overturned tractors. Newer models are equipped with rollover protection structures and other devices intended to prevent death in the event of an accident.
Safety education has increased, but collaboration between rural communities and local agricultural officials to improve safety measures remains difficult.
Although community extension services try to help farmers with safety issues and concerns, many lack the staff and resources necessary to accommodate them.
“Everyone is just stretched to the limit,” said Michele Schermann, an extension educator with the University’s Extension Service.
To better provide farmers with safety information and counseling at the local level, Schermann is helping to coordinate a community-based outreach program slated to begin this summer.
The program will recruit volunteers from five areas around the state to help in their areas. Outreach coordinators hired by the University will oversee the programs and coordinate individual projects.
“We want the volunteers to work with their communities and decide what they want to do in their communities as far as farm safety,” Schermann said.
One issue sure to garner much attention is the safety of children. Although the average fatality victims are 25-to-55-year-old males, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that 100 people under the age of 20 are killed each year in farm-related accidents.
Several national efforts are in the process of determining safety guidelines for children working on farms. The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, part of the Wisconsin-based National Farm Medicine Center, is developing guidelines for safe farm tasks for children, said Barb Lee, the organization’s director.
The guideline process is an international effort encompassing Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Ensuring children are restricted from certain tasks and carefully supervised in others is essential, Shutske said, but instructing parents to keep their children away from the farm is in many cases unrealistic.
“It’s a culture that is very rich in tradition,” said Shutske. “We’re trying to be real sensitive to that.”
Through various workshops, farm safety day camps and other programs Shutske helps bring to communities, parents and children become better informed about farm safety issues. The education the kids receive will ideally carry over into their adult lives, he added.
“It’s really hard to say Be careful, be careful, be careful,'” said Schermann.