Ordeal shows danger of farm work Boy, 7, severely injured when run over by tractor

September 14, 1997|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

For Westminster farmer George Rill, the memories creep up on cool September evenings. All it takes is the ominous rumble of a helicopter or the wail of a distant siren and -- for a split second -- Rill's mind rushes back to fall harvest four years ago when the unthinkable happened.

Rill was harvesting corn when his grandson, Gavin Jennings, then 7, was run over by a tractor. As in most farm accidents, the tractor was driven by a family member -- in this case, the boy's father and Rill's son-in-law, Jim Jennings.

Gavin survived serious injuries to his skull and face caused by a grain wagon and the cleats on the enormous tractor tire. Today, he's a healthy 11-year-old with an avid interest in sports who still helps around the farm.

For the most part, family members have been able to put aside the terror of the night in September 1993 when the horrified cries of Gavin's father brought them tearing down the farm lane.

But like most farm families, they never really believed the life they loved could turn on them the way it did.

"We never thought it would happen to us," said Ruth Jennings, her eyes filling with tears as she recalled the long recovery of her son, a boy who family, friends and even the doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital affectionately dubbed the Miracle Boy.

Season is beginning

This year, as harvest season begins in earnest, state agriculture officials' annual warnings about farm safety are more urgent than usual. Next week marks the 54th National Farm Safety and Health Week.

The devastation of the summer's drought will really hit home during "silo-filling" time, they say, because there's very little to fill the silos.

"The chance of accidents on the farm is always great, especially during harvest," said David L. Greene, director of the county's Cooperative Extension Center office. "But this year, with the physical stress of getting the job done and the emotional stress of having to purchase feed and silage elsewhere in some cases, there's a much greater risk."

Greene said the low yields may lead many farmers to cover their acreage much faster than normal. Others, he fears, will press forward at breakneck pace, anxious to plant small grains, such as wheat, barley or rye, to try to make up for the loss.

In Carroll County, where an acre of field corn usually yields 110 bushels or more, crop adjusters are predicting only 22 bushels.

Lee Grant, professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, said state officials do not track farm-related accidents and fatalities. But Grant and Greene said they are never surprised to hear about the handful of accidents that occur each year.

"Farm safety is an attitude," Grant said. "You can be the safest person in the world and still have an accident because of something you did that you knew you shouldn't have done."

According to the National Safety Council, agriculture remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the country -- surpassed in 1996 only by truck driving. Last year, 883 people were killed nationwide in farm accidents. Of these, more than 200 involved tractors and farm machinery.

In contrast, 114 policemen and 37 firefighters were killed on the job last year, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

'I have concerns'

It is not only the inexperienced or the young who are the victims of farm accidents.

Nearly 40 years ago, Carroll County Commissioner Donald I. Dell came home from the field and discovered his father, Roger, a respected dairyman, had been killed by a corn picker.

"I found Dad lying in the trough of the picking unit. The picker had pulled his arms right in. The doctor said he couldn't have saved him if he'd been standing right there beside him," Dell recalled.

Now that his sons and grandsons have taken over the farm, Dell often finds himself admonishing them to take care.

"I have concerns about the boys every day," he said. "And our equipment is much safer than it was back in the 1950s and '60s."

Grant said many advancements have been made in recent years, including safety shields, seat belts and rollover protective structures.

"But like everyone else, farmers get in a hurry," Grant said.

No remedial safety courses

And unlike with the certification to apply pesticides, which must be renewed biennially, no remedial safety courses are offered on driving tractors and operating other farm machinery, Grant said.

A state regulation dating to the 1960s requires boys 14 to 16 to take an extension service tractor-safety course, but only a handful of counties -- including Carroll and Harford -- offer the course with any regularity.

In many cases, farm children learn to operate equipment much earlier, Grant said.

Gavin Jennings was removing a hitch pin that connected the grain wagon to the tractor his father was driving when his accident occurred. It was a small task he liked to do and something his parents never questioned.

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