By Mallory Phelan
Half of the top eight deadliest professions in the United States? Logging, fishing, truck driving, and farming/ranching – ranking 1, 2, 7, and 8 respectively. I love to pore over statistics, but that one from the 2016 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries by the US Department of Labor is easily my least favorite of them all.
Have you ever had one of those stories that gets stuck in your throat? For many in agriculture and similar industries, it’s a story that is one of those deadly statistics. That painful story is the human connection to the myriad of statistics we have relating to safety in this industry. Growing up, I remember my dad teaching me how to drive a tractor and to be safe above all else. We were never to be in too big of a hurry to sacrifice our safety. Now working in agriculture, I certainly have heard a fair share of stories – everything from close calls of broken bones to lost limbs to fatal accidents.
One Saturday evening this spring, news of a farm accident in my hometown knocked the wind out of me. Kirk Burkholder, a friend and fellow participant in Class 2 of REAL Oregon, lost his life in a forklift accident – now a void left in the lives of so many friends and family.
We know that agriculture, forestry, and the transportation to get product to market comes with an element of danger. The very elements and means that make production possible are often the source of the most risk: machinery, animals, asphyxiation, falls, entanglements, electrocution, heatstroke – the list goes on. Moving parts, long hours, time-sensitive and sometimes repetitive work, weather, age, sleep, mental health, and more all play a part in safety on the job. While the danger is clearly present, there are choices to make (often over and over again) when it comes to safety.
Most people are guilty of unsafe choices like taking a shortcut to get something done or operating machinery on too few hours of sleep, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look to identify areas to improve safety on our operations so everyone makes it home each day. Just because you’ve always done it one way and never had a problem, doesn’t mean that will always be the case. Safety is not where you want to play the odds.
On your operation, do you spend time on safety improvements like you do planning your crop rotation, fertilizing, planting, spraying, or even budgeting? Creating a culture of safety can not only save your operation from becoming a statistic, but it improves morale and saves money in the long run.
One of the best parts of cultivating a culture of safety on your operation is that it can be rooted in choice. Just like solving the dozens of problems a day on the farm, you can identify safety hazards and choose to focus your energy, time, and resources where it’s most needed. For example, knowing that in 2016, two out of every five workplace deaths were transportation related – a majority of which were farmers and truck drivers – might make you decide to implement the use walkie talkies instead of cell phones for employees moving equipment down a road.
We all wish that stuck-in-your-throat story we know first-hand wasn’t true and unfortunately, these dangers in the natural resource industry work are not news. As harvest ramps up, slows down, and ends, I hope you spend more time than you did last year, last month, and last week choosing to be safe. It’s a choice we all make every time we are out on a farm, ranch, boat, or truck – for ourselves, our families, and those who are no longer with us.