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From digging to grain bins, farmers face varied dangers

An Enbridge employee shows John Proulx how he locates underground pipelnes. Proulx accidentally dented a pipe while digging on his northwestern Minnesota farm. (Enbridge photo)1 / 2
Underground utilities, such as pipeliines, are marked, with informatoin about how to contact the utility to report a problem. (Enbridge photo)2 / 2

RED LAKE FALLS, Minn.—John Proulx learned his lesson, without a fireball.

He was tipping over a tree while clearing land on his northwestern Minnesota farm when he heard a scraping sound. He knew he did not hit a rock with his end loader, and the thought crossed his mind that he may have hit an oil pipeline.

He did. But he was lucky because it was just dented, not sliced open, which could have caused an explosion or spill. The Enbridge pipeline had to be shut down and fixed.

"We thought we knew where it was," Proulx said.

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Proulx learned his lesson. "It always is better to be safe than sorry in the end."

The next time Proulx prepared to dig, he called 811, a free service to have utilities located.

Enbridge's Laura Kircher staffed a booth at Farmfest near Morgan, Minn., in early August to let farmers know the importance of checking before digging. She said that any work deeper than 18 inches requires a call to 811 to protect utilities and those doing the digging.

In Minnesota, www.gopherstateonecall.org provides more information. And call811.com directs users to more information in any state.

"I think we have a lot of farmers who aren't calling 811," Kircher said, which could end up in injury or death.

If a pipeline is hit, she said, a farmer should shut off his tractor or other implement, if safe, and get away right way. Then he should call 911 and Enbridge; a telephone number for the pipeline company should be on a nearby marker.

Pipeline safety is one of an almost endless number of problems farmers face. Those issues range from noise to injuries, dealing with visitors to fumes. They affect adults and children alike.

"Agriculture has been and remains, arguably, the most dangerous occupation in this state," said Paul Aasen of the Minnesota Safety Council.

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The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say agriculture is among the most hazardous of industries across the country and one of the few in which family members are at risk because farming often is a family enterprise.

In 2012, the centers report, 374 farmers died from work-related injuries. On average, more than 100 youths younger than 20 die from farm injuries annually.

Nearly a quarter of deaths involved machinery, including tractors. Fewer died because of other machinery injuries, including all-terrain vehicle wrecks.

The U.S. Labor Department says the farmer fatality rate is seven times that of that of all in private industry. Every day, the department reports, about 243 American farm workers suffer a lost-work-time injury.

In Minnesota alone, more than 200 farm deaths occurred in the past decade.

The "big fish" in farm injuries remains tractor rollovers, Aasen said. But a new focus is being placed on child safety, He said that once every three days an American child dies in a farm mishap.

There also are issues involving cars, pickups and all-terrain vehicles related to the farm.

"Death and serious injuries in motor vehicle crashes in rural areas are about 10 to 15 percent higher than they are in urban areas," Aasen said, partly because of lower seat belt use there, partly because rural roads often are more dangerous and partly because speeds usually are higher on rural roads.

"You pile all of that together and there is an opportunity for a bigger crash," Aasen said.

Then there is a different atmosphere on the farm.

Farmers "have got much more harried and hurried in their business process," Aasen said.

And in an already dangerous situation, "humans shortcut stuff," he added.

Shortcuts are a special concern in one increasingly concerning type of accident: grain entrapments.

Purdue University reports 47 American farmers died in "confined space incidents," mostly grain bins, in 2014. While that was down from 71 in 2014, the issue is one of the most-discussed in agriculture because the deaths are among the most dramatic.

Farmers often need to enter grain bins, those circular metal-walled containers, to make sure grain is moving properly. But a farmer can run into complications.

For instance, if an auger is moving grain out of the bin, grain can suck a person into the grain flow and injure or kill him in the auger.

A less obvious problem is when a farmer walks on grain in the enclosed bin and, unknown to him, there is an open space underneath. The grain bridge, as the grain on top is called, can collapse, dropping the farmer into grain that can pull him in within seconds.

Farmers usually check grain alone, despite warnings that at least one observer be on hand, or at least someone is notified of the plan to go into a silo.

"As grain cascades down, the victim is covered with an 'avalanche' of grain that traps and suffocates him or her," the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration reports.

Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap, a long-time farm safety instructor, said the safety of grain often depends on its condition. Moist grain can bridge easier than dry grain. And each type of grain—corn, soybeans, etc.—has different properties.

A fairly new farm concern is how to keep visitors safe.

With agritourist increasing, people who do not live on farms need to take steps to be safe and healthy, according to Diane Kampa of the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, based at the University of Minnesota.

"The general public who didn't grow up on farms don't have the same immunity," Kampa said.

Frequent hand washing is one of the items emphasized for farm visitors.

Visitors may not understand various farm dangers, such as being in a tractor driver's blind spot, and should closely supervise children, the National Children's Center for Rural and Agriculture Safety advises.

Mary Hoffmann, agriculture teacher at Sleepy Eye schools, works with children each year at the Farmfest agriculture show and elsewhere to teach farm safety to kids. And they are not just from the farm.

"Some of the kids come with grandma and grandpa, so when they visit the farm they know what to do," Hoffmann said.

One common lesson is that grain can pull someone under quickly. Loose clothing also can be a danger on a farm, with a good chance that it would get caught in equipment, Hoffmann said.

There are special problems in garages, machine sheds and barns where chemicals sit out.

"You can't tell if it is blue Gatorade or anti-freeze," Hoffman said.

Many visitors, she added, "don't know what to do when they go to the farm. ... The more people who tell them it is dangerous, the more they understand."

Farmers often think they know what to do and may not need much protection. But women at one Farmfest booth tried to tell farmers they need to do a better of job protecting themselves.

Alex Farfalla from the University of Nebraska Medical Center said that for years, farmers were overlooked when it came to the need for hearing and respiratory protection.

"Your ears and your lungs, they don't grow back," she said.

Respiratory devices range from simple masks to complete outfits that look like space suits. Many are not available locally, Fafalla said, but can be found on Amazon.com and elsewhere online.

Like the masks, hearing protection can range from simple ear plugs to headsets.

Emily Trenkamp of the Iowa-based Great Plains Center for Agriculture Health said farmers around manure pits need to have hydrogen sulfide monitors, available for $100 to $275. The gas can kill animals and farmers alike.

On Aug. 15, a Wisconsin farmer died after being overcome by fumes from a manure holding pit on his farm in an accident such as Trenkamp was trying to prevent.

The Portage County coroner reported that Michael Biadasz was found dead along with at least 13 cows on his Amherst-area farm. The corner said that warmer temperatures created a dome of air that trapped the fumes.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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