Potential for accidents makes agriculture risky business in state

Farming a leader among most-dangerous jobs in Maryland, nation

November 28, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

On a brisk, sunny autumn day, the job of harvesting grain can be glorious and satisfying work.

But it can also be dangerous -- more dangerous than being a police officer on the street.

Heavy equipment, large animals, chemicals, long hours, solitary working conditions and the stress of nature's unforgiving deadlines all conspire to make farming the second-most dangerous occupation in the nation, according to national statistics.

"My wife says every time you walk out on the farm, there's an accident waiting to happen," said Franklin Feeser, who raises hogs and grain near Taneytown.

A combine accident this month injured Melvin E. Baile Jr., 38, of New Windsor, a past president of the Maryland Grain Producers Association. Baile is recovering at University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. A combine is a large machine driven through a field to harvest grain.

In Maryland, farming has a higher rate of fatal accidents than any other occupation -- even mining. And the busy fall and spring seasons seem to be when most accidents occur, farmers say, because they're working longer hours with more equipment and often are alone for long periods.

"It seems like you hear of accidents in the fall more than any other time of year," said Lawrence Meeks, a Carroll County grain farmer who has lost two friends to accidents in the last six years.

"A lot of people push themselves hard -- you get extra tired. You just don't think as clearly as you ought to," he said.

Meeks can recall a few close calls of his own. A power take-off shaft -- which uses a tractor to power another machine -- once caught the hem of his blue jeans and ripped them right off, tearing his leather belt and knocking him down.

"That was one of the times I could have been mangled, but it was just plain luck," Meeks said.

Fatal accidents

Last year, 592 farmers were involved in fatal accidents in the United States, most of them involving tractor accidents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In that same year, 137 police officers lost their lives on the job, most to homicide. Truck drivers had the highest number of deaths for any occupation -- 870 died on the job last year.

In Maryland, the combined category of farmer, forester and fisher has the highest rate of fatal accidents, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Insurance broker Joseph Lee Bishop of Hereford in northern Baltimore County insures farmers in Maryland through Nationwide Insurance and the Maryland Farm Bureau. He and his daughter, Alyson Anne Bishop, often make visits to farms to assess risk.

"They work long hours, and the chance of accidents is high," he said. "On dairy farms, they're big, heavy animals, and they can spook easily. They can kick you and knock you into next week."

More stress, more danger

Bishop has lived and worked amid farmers all his life, and is a member of the board of directors for the Baltimore County Farm Bureau.

"You go to meetings, and a lot of them are missing digits, or part of their hand is mangled because it got caught in an auger," Bishop said. An auger is a spiraling, pole-shaped machine that moves grain upward, similar to the way an escalator moves people.

Meeks said the stress level gets higher every year for farmers -- which only increases the risk of an accident. This year's drought has resulted in lower corn and soybean yields, and a market that is paying less for the grain than it cost to plant and harvest, he said.

"Farm families are all under extra stress," he said.

Pulling together

But farming is as much a way of life as it is a job in places such as Carroll County. When an accident occurs, farmers pull together to help their neighbors.

Meeks recalls when his neighbor, Martin Beachtel, died after his tractor rolled while he was baling hay on a hillside in June 1994.

Although it was a busy time for all of them, Meeks and neighboring farmers stepped in to finish Beachtel's work for the next six months.

"We made the rest of his hay for him -- for his family -- and other farmers completed the crop year for him," Meeks said. "They took care of his corn and soybeans and harvested the grain in the fall."

Statistics

National agencies and insurers calculate the dangers of the workplace from several different angles: by type of death across all industries, by industry, by specific occupation, by sheer numbers, by the number of deaths per 100,000, over one year, over several years.

Agriculture comes up consistently near the top.

Long-term national statistics show mining as the industry with the highest overall number of deaths per 100,000 workers -- 30.5. Agriculture, combined with forestry and fishing, comes in second -- 20.5 deaths.

When arranged by specific occupation, rather than the industry as a whole, truck driving comes out as the most dangerous job -- 23 deaths per 100,000 workers. But farmers/foresters/fishers still comes up second -- 20.7.

All of those figures are for the period of 1980-1994, and compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

But tracking farm accidents has been an inexact science and a challenge, said Ron Saacke, a loss-control consultant for Nationwide's agriculture division who is working with local Farm Bureau clubs to more accurately record accidents.

State police and emergency rooms don't always note that the accident was farm-related. And farmers often don't want to make a point of saying so, he said.

"One of the biggest problems that we're dealing with in tracking farm accidents and fatalities is in many cases, the farming community has looked at it in the past as an embarrassment if there was an accident on the farm," Saacke said.

"I think now, they're realizing that farming is inherently dangerous, and they're talking about it."

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