Website aims to share stories of injury on the farm

August 3, 2018

Stephanie Leonard, right, interviews farm workers for the Telling the Story Project website.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — To read Jason Fevold’s story is to read about death, cheated.

Fevold, a farm worker in October 2010, was helping spread manure from a hog confinement barn onto the soil when he went into the barn to use the restroom.

Taking too long to return to the tractor, his wife Roxanne, went looking for him. She found him on the floor, passed out and, likely, near death. Hydrogen sulfide gas from the manure tanks under the barn had knocked him out and poisoned his blood.

“It would have been a lot different if she hadn’t been there,” Jason told Stephanie Leonard, an industrial hygienist at the University of Iowa.

Telling stories

The Fevold’s story is one of seven found at tellingthestoryproject.org, a website operated by Worksafe Iowa and funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program. The purpose of the website is to share stories to put a face and name on farm safety.

“It’s human nature,” said Leonard. “A story sticks with you, and the way they explain it is more memorable than just telling people ‘be safe out there and don’t put on slippery shoes in the winter.’

The ‘here’s what happened to me’ stories reinforce the lesson that should be learned, she said.

That’s why these stories are so important, Leonard said. As someone who works in occupational safety, Leonard knows that telling farmers to be careful can become “white noise.”

But when farmers hear the stories and safety warnings from their peers, they listen.

Farm living

What makes safety on the farm so troublesome, Leonard said, is the array of skills, tools and settings that farmers face. There’s heavy machinery, large animals, grain storage bins, animal storage facilities, and scores of small tools and pieces of machinery that can spell danger.

While modern combines and tractors often have safety interlocks built into them, many farms also have an older tractor that is used sparingly for, say, pulling tree stumps. That machine does not have the built-in safety feature, Leonard said, and will get used by people who are used to the newer versions.

“A third of the work-related fatalities were in agriculture, though it’s just 10 percent of the workforce,” Leonard said.

In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries, with farmers risking both fatal and nonfatal injuries. It is also unique in that farming is one of the few industries in which family members, who share the work and live on the premises, also are at risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries.

“I think in agriculture, what we see is not a real narrow path of work that’s done,” Leonard said. “There are veterinarians, construction, heavy equipment operators. People drive skid loaders and ATVs. There’s just a lot of different pieces of equipment. Not all the people have a lot of experience using them.”

Individual safety

And, like in any industry, people can become complacent. That, Fevold said, is what happened to her husband after his accident.

Within a few years of his near-fatal accident in the hog barn and while he was still suffering its lingering effects, he was told by an employer to go back into the building.

“That’s when he decided to leave, when he was asked to do it again,” she said.

In addition to all the dangerous situations on a single farm, Fevold said the industry is inherently dangerous because each farm is different, and each segment of the farm industry is different.

“I grew up in Wisconsin where it’s all dairy and not a lot of hog farms,” she said. “The safety you learn around dairies is a lot different than what you learn around hog confinement.”

Because each farm is different, she said, it can be hard sometimes to identify safety concerns. “Until something like what happens to my husband happens at the farm, you don’t think about it,” Fevold said.

Tales to tell

Leonard said the purpose of the website is to get more people to share their farm-accident stories in order to help identify problems and serve as a reminder of the dangers inherent in the agriculture industry.

“When you get hurt, you replay that accident over and over, and sometimes you say, ‘I knew better,’” she said. “People identify and say, ‘Yeah, I could have been that person.’”

The stories also show how accidents on the farm change people’s lives. “It’s not just a remote statistic,” she said. “It hits an empathy nerve. It’s painful to see people go through a process of losing a loved one.”

And while some of the stories might seem like a way to scare farm workers to be safe, the real purpose is to make those who work on the farm aware so they can engage in safe practices.

“We’re building a website and looking for more stories to share,” Leonard said. “Safety isn’t like a turn-it-on and turn-it-off thing. It needs to be part of a mentality and awareness.”

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