Farm Dangers!

My daughter is skeptical of many things I say to her, particularly if I’m stopping her from doing something fun, like throwing a plastic elephant across the room or rhythmically smacking the floor with a hand mirror. A typical conversation goes something like this:

“Stop hanging from that shelf.”

“Why?”

“It’s not strong enough. It might pull out of the wall.”

(Here she immediately grabs it and lifts her feet, testing my claim.)

“Look dad, it didn’t break!”

On the one hand, I wish she would listen to me when I tell her not to do something. If mere parental authority isn’t enough for a three year old, I’m not sure what it’s worth. But I’m also secretly happy that she wants to square what she hears with her own experience of the world, even if it means she has to fall off of her rocking chair the tenth time she stands up on it, despite my nine previous warnings.

I’ve also realized that I’m susceptible to a version of the same fallacy. Repeatedly experiencing something that is objectively dangerous can render it mundane, and with this regularity comes an illusion of safety. There’s a small stream that bisects the farm, and some previous owner of the property straightened out its course where it passes the barn and houses. As a result, it has dug itself a deep, steep-sided ditch, which I have to cross anywhere from two to a dozen times per day. There’s a good bridge for cars and equipment further down, but relying on it makes my route from my house to the animals annoyingly circuitous, so I instead wobble my way over a pair of rotting, slippery, telephone poles that I rigged up as a “temporary” crossing two years ago. I’ve used them so many times I don’t usually even notice the risk, yet I do still have moments of clarity, in which I realize how monumentally stupid I’ll feel if I someday find myself laid up with a broken leg after falling off of them. At least my daughter has inexperience and age to justify her foolishness; I can recognize the inherent danger of something and still keep doing it every day, simply because it hasn’t gone wrong yet and because I have a vague intention to fix it at some point in the future.

According to the best data I could find after about half a minute of searching the internet, farming is the sixth most dangerous occupation in the country, though this is based solely on mortality. It’s easy to understand how chainsaws and falling trees might do in loggers (most dangerous), how lines, hooks, storms, and icy water would be a danger to fishermen (second most), or how falling might be a particular hazard to roofers (fourth). But why farmers and ranchers should be number six is a bit more opaque.

The CDC has lots of data about the hazards of agricultural work, but the fact that tractor rollovers are, unsurprisingly, the single biggest cause of death is the only point of clarity. The most recent data are for 2012, and they contain some interesting but rather opaque information. “Machinery” is listed as the cause of only 3,399 injuries, while the “Persons/plants/animals/minerals” category clocks in at a whopping 23,899, more than double even the always dangerous “Structures/surfaces” at 11,784 or “Vehicles” at 8,575. (It’s not clear if tractor accidents would be here, in the “Machinery” group, or, less likely, in “Tools/instruments/equipment,” which adds another 4,339.)

Looking deeper mostly confuses things further. A different chart breaks down injuries into slightly altered categories, with no explanation why. Here “Contacts with Objects and Equipment” is in the lead at 15,580, though that’s down from 35,446 in 2001. “Falls” injure 9,642 (presumably this will cover any mishaps I might have on my telephone pole bridge), while the mysterious “Bodily reaction and exertion” group takes care of another 10,566. While you might assume that this would include things like chemical burns or reactions to pesticides, you’d be wrong; one of the chart’s few notes explains that exposure to harmful substances falls into the “Other events” category, which comes in at 10,522. Another helpfully states in relation to “Assaults and violent acts” (9,444) that “On farm assaults are predominantly assaults by animals.”

For me this conjures the image of a rooster waiting to jump out of the coop and demand my wallet, but the reality is a bit more mundane. On one farm where I apprenticed I was assisting with the administration of some routine medical care to a heifer. My job was to grab her horns in a futile attempt to hold her head still. I hesitate to call what happened next a struggle, since she seemed more or less oblivious to my presence, but at one point she casually lifted one of her feet and put it down on mine. She was not big as cows go, and I was wearing sensible boots, but it still felt like I’d slipped my toes into a vice, and I had a nice bruise to show for my carelessness.

So there are cows and ladders to fall off of and fences to trip on and groundhog holes to twist ankles, to say nothing of how much less engineered for safety most farm equipment is than any other large machine I might encounter in daily life, such as a car. This is the difficulty of improving safety on a farm; there are so many moving parts, each more or less potentially dangerous in its own unique way, that it can seem impossible to anticipate what is most likely to go wrong.

I think I had a larger point I wanted to make when I started this post, but now I feel like it will probably just unduly frighten my mom. And perhaps my conclusions are overly fatalistic; the tractor has a roll bar, and I’ll obviously need to build a real bridge before my daughter gets old enough to think she should be able to cross the telephone poles.

-Garth

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