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Down On The Farm: It’s Downright Dangerous

Chris Eversole

Carol Lehtola (352) 392-8064
Anne DeLotto Baier, University (813) 974-3300

GAINESVILLE Florida agriculture is dangerous, but buckling up and retrofitting older tractors with roll bars can go a long way toward making it safer.

That’s the conclusion of safety experts at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida involved in a new study of deaths on Florida’s farms and ranches over 10 years.

A total of 211 adults and 20 children died in Florida agriculture from 1989 to 1998, according to the study, the first ever conducted on deaths at farms and ranches across the state. At least 74 of the deaths among adults involved machinery, including tractors overturning and crushing their drivers, according to the study conducted by USF’s Karen Liller for the Deep South Center for Agricultural Health and Safety. Liller calls this a preliminary finding because she still is deciding how to categorize deaths in which tractors fell into water and the drivers drowned. Adding in these drownings would increase deaths involving tractors and machinery.

For children, the top cause of death was falling off equipment or becoming entangled in it, accounting for five of the 20 deaths.

“It’s tempting for a farmer to let his kids ride with him, but you never know when your son or daughter is going to slip and fall under the wheel of your tractor or get caught in your mower,” said Carol Lehtola, agricultural safety specialist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“As for tractor overturns, equipment is available to protect against them, but many older tractors aren’t equipped with it,” Lehtola said. The pieces of equipment that make tractors safer are seat belts and roll-over protective structures, or ROPS metal structures that resemble roll bars in race cars.

“Tractor accidents occur at low speeds, and people generally get killed and injured from tractors falling on them,” Lehtola said. “ROPS provide a zone of safety, and seat belts hold drivers in the zone. Together, they can prevent 99 percent of deaths from tractor overturns.”

Manufacturers have voluntarily installed ROPS and seat belts since 1985, but farmers and ranchers still are using many tractors built before then.

“ROPS are built so they can be folded down to clear tight spots, and farmers and ranchers sometimes leave them down or don’t buckle their seat belts,” Lehtola said. “You never know when using the protection you have can save your life.

“Even though tractors can be retrofitted with ROPS and seat belts, many farmers and ranchers don’t bother,” Lehtola said. “There’s a tendency to think that something is going to happen to the other guy.

“In fact, agricultural land is rugged, with lots of ditches, gullies and depressions, and tractors can tip over easily,” she said.

Liller conducted the study using data from the Injury Prevention Program of the Florida Bureau of Emergency Medical Services. She’s expanding her research by examining the causes of agricultural injuries. “It’s important to do this work because we can’t plan effective injury prevention programs until we know how people are getting hurt and killed,” she said.

Liller and Lehtola are developing safety programs for the new agricultural safety center, which the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health created this year. The center serves Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

The center’s safety efforts include developing a state chapter of “Farm Safety 4 Just Kids,” a national organization founded by an Iowa mother whose son was killed when he became trapped in a grain wagon.

In addition, UF’s Cooperative Extension Service helps run farm safety day camps, co-sponsored by Progressive Farmer magazine. More than 1,200 children and their parents across the state have participated.

Lehtola also serves as a primary adviser for the North American Guidelines for Children’s Agricultural Tasks Project, which this month published booklets that help parents match their sons’ and daughters’ abilities with requirements of agricultural jobs.

“Kids often aren’t mature enough or coordinated enough to drive tractors, hitch equipment and care for livestock, and the guidelines help parents understand what’s reasonable,” Lehtola said.

“A classic scene of American nostalgia is a farm child riding a tractor in an open field. The reality is he or she can fall off and get killed.”

More information on agricultural safety is available at the Web site of the Florida AgSafe Network: