Saturday, July 4, 2015

As safe as we want to be

November 1998

It should be obvious to any member of this profession that farming is not a particularly safe occupation. In fact, it is one of the more dangerous ways to make a living or raise a family. And we seem determined to keep it that way.

It is difficult for many farmers to make safety a priority. For starters, “Who’s gonna make us?” Because of operation size or the lack of employees, there are few enforceable safety restrictions. Similarly, the politically sacrosanct “family” umbrella shelters us from other safety mandates.

This lack of superior authority makes it easy to engage in hazardous practices, many of which pass for clever tricks of the trade. When I was in the Navy, by contrast, nuclear technology was so unforgiving that safety was the first thought, not the last. Plus I have seen naval careers crippled by not following the rules to the letter.

My son is a mining engineer. He has described in harsh detail how mining has been changed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Like OSHA in industry, MSHA is a bureaucratic cross for miners to bear. But the bottom line is that far fewer miners are injured and killed than before.

Indeed, one reason I strongly urge young people to work off-farm before returning is to get some real-world exposure to safety training. My naval training changed my attitude and helped me handle the urge to take unnecessary risks when pressured. The fact that almost every other job has stringent safety rules can make farm practices seem pretty foolish by comparison.

Maybe farmers will continue to avoid regulation by being small and family-based. However, it could also be that some politician or regulator is going to take a look at our professional safety record and see a need for government action, which could just coincidentally help his career.

One possible justification for such intervention is that, unlike other industries, we too often injure our own children. I do not wish to add pain to those who have experienced this terrible tragedy, but I am appalled at the casual attitude we have towards placing children in harm’s way through apathy and ignorance, or worst of all, for profit.

Those who feel that government will never have the political will to invade the family boundary to enforce safety rules on farms might want to rethink. The increasing use of “children’s welfare” as the moral justification for efforts as diverse as foreign policy (Iraq) and health care provides a useful precedent to those outside agriculture who would clean up our act for us.

There will be those who see this position as an infringement of constitutional freedom, but freedom brings concomitant responsibility. In my opinion, we are not handling that responsibility well, to say the least.

Others will also argue that safety rules and equipment interfere with the operation of our farms. Actually, I agree. But if your farm derives its competitive advantage from operating unsafely, you are not much of a farmer in my eyes, nor a likely long-term competitor. The operators I admire and want to emulate are those who can keep the people safe and still make money. Oddly enough, even cumbersome rules can be adapted to, and routine safe procedures can become as timely as hazardous shortcuts. Over the long run, safety pays huge dividends.

Our professional obsession for speed also complicates our priorities. Cutting corners on safety can save time in some instances. Even the threat of not finishing at all due to an accident rarely overcomes this racetrack mentality. It is important to remember therefore, that your work practices affect others by contributing to the professional standards in your area. In short, you are risking other lives as well as your own.

Unfortunately too, farm safety has become a “women’s issue” in many male operator eyes. Farm women’s organizations have been more alert to the magnitude of this problem and are in the forefront of its solution. Perversely, this can exacerbate a sexist perception of operating safely. Believe me, the “real men take chances” philosophy is out there. It is to our shame, gentlemen, that we have been so slow to join in this important effort. The truth is that real men don’t throw lives away.

We could be building our own solutions. For instance, by helping insurance companies devise routine farm safety audits that allow farms to qualify for insurance discounts, we could assign a dollar value that many farmers seem to need to recognize the risks involved.

Professional organizations such as Farm Bureau or National Corn Growers could also work to train members to view safety as an urgent political issue, not a breakout session for spouses. And the media, including me especially, needs be careful how funny we make essentially dangerous actions appear. We also need to educate our whole industry on how to weigh and compare risks - risk communication.

More than most other occupations, we farmers enjoy freedom of action in our professional lives. However, there is no legal or moral freedom to hurt and kill. 

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