Angie Johnson, NDSU Extension farm and ranch safety coordinator, who farms with her parents near Galesburg, N.D., has been passionate about farm safety for a long time. When Johnson was growing up on the farm, her dad suffered a farm-related injury that made a huge impact on her life.
“When I was little, my dad was crushed by dual tractor tires while trying to remove them. At that time, calcium chloride was a popular liquid used to fill tractor tires to help the tractor gain more traction and weight. That meant the tractor tires were much heavier than had they just been filled with air,” Johnson said. “My dad was lucky that he was not killed in that incident, but he had significant damage above his knee, where the tires applied crushing force.”
That incident changed how Johnson’s family farm operates today in many ways. They are always looking for ways to improve farm safety and mitigate hazards on the farm.
Growing up in the Galesburg community, Johnson saw a lot of farm-related injuries and fatalities that impacted the community. She remembered a neighbor that lost his life when he hit a culvert while sickle-mowing road ditches for hay.
“No job is worth losing your life over, including farming and ranching. An ag-related fatality can have a devastating impact on a community and a family,” she said.
Some injuries may not lead to a fatality, but like her dad, they can lead to permanent disabilities.
A physical disability can sideline farmers and ranchers, leading downtime and economic loss on the farm.
“I have seen many people get their hands crushed in a gate or suffer life-long injuries from falling off a grain bin. It is those types of farm-related injuries that don’t always make the news because it is not a fatality, but a lot of these types of injuries are actually a really big problem on farms and ranches,” she said.
These type of incidences, known in the farm safety world as ‘slips, trips, and falls,’ can happen at any time on a farm or ranch, especially during busy times, such as harvesting.
During harvest, farmers are quickly unloading their grain from the semi-truck to the bin by auger and hurrying to get back to the field as soon as possible.
This is the time when machinery entanglements can happen, one of the leading causes of loss of limb and even death on the farm.
“If you bend over an auger and a piece of clothing gets caught, you could become completely entangled in the auger’s flighting. The auger will not stop rotating until someone is able to shut it off,” she said. “The auger does not care how strong you are, as you will never win in an entanglement situation.”
A positive tool that Johnson said can help with communication while working with grain bins, augers, or other equipment on the farm or ranch is “Lockout/Tagout,” which allows farmers to take ownership in the operation of their equipment.
“It’s a really powerful, yet simple tool,” Johnson said. “It gives farmers the power to shut things down without having someone turn the machine back on by installing a lock with a key or tag with a zip tie in case of a repair problem.”
The tag alerts others that the auger or other pieces of equipment, including electrical power sources, have been shut down and it is not safe to turn it back on until the original farmer has taken his lock or tag off.
“This can keep faulty equipment from being turned on during a repair, especially when working with other family members or employees on the farm. It can prevent someone from being injured or worse,” she said.
Grain bins can be hazardous if precautions for preventing falls and entrapments are not taken.
Farmers will often spend weeks to months climbing grain bin ladders and checking on the condition of their grain during and after harvest.
“Inside that grain bin can be an entire year’s worth of crop, waiting to be marketed at a valuable price. As farmers, we have to monitor grain condition constantly to ensure that it stays in good marketing condition to receive the best price possible,” Johnson said.
When grain begins to spoil or succumb to insect damage, farmers can often take risks to enter a grain bin to break apart the chunks or crusts that form from unconditioned grain, in order to keep the grain flowing through the sump and auger systems.
“Oftentimes, we forget to protect ourselves first, which means we should not go inside the bin when there are unpredictable hazards present, such as entrapment or engulfment situations,” she said. “We need to have a grain bin entrance and exit plan in place first – otherwise, it could be deadly.”
There may be times when farmers have to climb up the bin ladder to open the bin.
“Use fall protection. I am a huge proponent of that. You can harness up and get some lifeline fall protection gear on to help. It won’t stop you from a fall, but it will stop you from completely falling all the way to the ground,” Johnson said.
The Class III harnesses that farmers wear to climb up the ladder needs to fit properly, and the farmer entering the grain bin needs to have the harness secured to the outside of the bin.
“Investing in safety equipment can make the difference between life and death,” she said. “There is a really neat safety-type product out there that is a series of cables and pulleys that allow you to connect yourself to a Class III harness with the fall protection line on it.”
There are some potentially new products out there for mixing the grain when it is in the bin, but for now, it is vital to be extra cautious of grain entrapment.
“Make sure your grain is in good condition before going into bin. Be savvy and mindful once it is in the bin and watch to make sure there are no hot spots forming. Once there are, get that grain moving because it doesn’t get better with time,” she said.
On her family farm, Johnson has added new lids to grain bins that can be opened from the ground, so that she doesn’t need to climb up on a ladder to open the lid.
“On our hopper bins, we have actually installed ground opening lids, which means we can stand on the ground and pull a cable system that opens the lid without us having to climb up and actually open that lid,” Johnson said. “When I need to close that lid, I simply stay standing on the ground and pull the cable back. The lid unlocks, and it allows me to close that lid while still standing on the ground.”
For ladders, Johnson said installing a spiral staircase system around your grain bin is better than a straight fixed ladder, but that does increase cost.
“It depends on what everybody’s budget looks like. I highly encourage putting a staircase system on a bin versus just the straight fixed ladder, simply because you have more control on a spiral staircase than you do climbing a fixed ladder,” she said.
The environment can also create dangerous conditions for the farmer, by causing slippery surfaces on ladders, steps, and walkways.
“This time of year, we are in a humid, foggy, heavy dew situation in the mornings, and so those rungs are slippery. In addition, your feet are wet from walking in the grass or on walkways from heavy dew,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t take much to have a slippery surface when you’re trying to climb those steps or ladder rungs.”
When harvesting crops in the combine, Johnson said it is important to prevent any combine fires that might start, especially when crops are dry.
“One of the challenges of cutting a dry crop is a combine fire, and especially when the crop is soybeans or sunflowers. That is really because of the dust when harvesting those two types of crops,” she said.
Those residues are extremely dusty and have very fine particles.
“If you have ever broken open a sunflower stem at harvest time – it snaps better than a twig off a tree,” Johnson said.
The inside piece, known as the pith, disintegrates when it hits the header and gets blown into the hot engine components. Residue builds up on the combine over time.
“Once that dust gets in there, it can sit there and smolder. Stop and take time to grab an air compressor or even a leaf blower and get rid of the buildup of chaff,” she said.
Fire extinguishers can help and so can a water truck that goes into every field as it is being combined. When the fire can’t be quickly controlled, call 911 and get help, Johnson said.
If a farmer decides to take the grain off moist and dry it in the bin, make sure to keep all grain drying system as clean as possible.
“If there is a need to dry soybeans, remember that stem and plant pieces can get caught in dryer systems. Take the time to screen the crop before it goes in the dryer,” Johnson said. “For the type of investment we make in our dryer systems, it is well worth it.”
Johnson is the first person to hold the position at NDSU in farm and ranch safety in several years. She works directly with county Extension agents to get her message out to farmers. Before this position, she was an Extension agent in Steele County, so she understands how important the relationship is for the benefit of farmers and ranchers.
“Being able to work with our county-based Extension agents has been phenomenal because they are our boots-on-the-ground folks,” she said. “I like to work with our Extension agents on helping them provide safety awareness and education, so they take it back and bring it to their communities.”
For more farm safety tips, see www.ndsu.edu/agriculture/ag-hub/ag-topics/farm-safety-health.