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John Shutske

John Shutske works tirelessly to prevent deaths and injuries to farmers and their families.

The real cost of food

Farm work is hard and dangerous, but the U's John Shutske is helping reduce the hazards

By Deane Morrison

September 18, 2007

It's autumn, and soon a bright harvest moon will light fields for farmers working to put food on our tables. But behind this romantic image lies the cold hard fact that farmers risk life and limb to do it. Farming ranks among the most dangerous occupations in the nation, with 600 or 700 adults and 100 children killed each year, plus many more maimed, says University farm safety expert John Shutske. "Agriculture has the highest fatality rate among major industry categories, with a rate seven to eight times greater than the average U.S. rate for all industries combined," says Shutske, a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering. Shutske works both to design safer farm machinery and to raise awareness of dangers so farm workers can better protect themselves and their children. He recently received a national award for a research paper describing his design of a sensor to detect when people get too close to a power take-off--a rotating shaft that uses the power of a tractor to run a mower, auger, or other farm machine--and shut off the tractor.

A week to reflect

This year, Sept. 16-22 is National Farm Safety and Health Week, an annual program of the National Safety Council. This year's theme is "It's better to bury a tradition than a child." The theme comes from the National Children's Ag Safety Network, which has launched a national media campaign to get across the simple message that children under 12 should not be on or near tractors.

The issue of farm safety hit home in the early 1990s, when two wrenching stories shook the public. "John Thompson, a North Dakota teenager, lost both arms to a rotating grain auger," Shutske recalls. "Several weeks after that, a little boy from Wisconsin lost an arm in a piece of irrigation equipment." Safety has improved recently, as shown by statistics over the 23 years Shutske has working in the area. When he started out, there were more than 60 deaths per 100,000 people in farming; in 2006, the number was "in the high 20s." In Minnesota, children under 16 used to account for 20 percent of deaths, but in 2006 the number was two out of 26, or 7.7 percent. One obstacle to further improvements is the equipment one finds on most farms. New equipment often has safety features like sensors, but many farm machines are old and unsafe, Shutske says.

"Everybody knows a neighbor or somebody who's been killed," says Shutske. "People have to ask if that's acceptable." "With new grain combines, if you get out of the seat, some parts will shut off," he says. "But how do we get people to remember that when they're on an old machine, there's no safety device? That phenomenon can be really hard to work around, and it's something machinery companies and others are very aware of." In general, the human tendency to take risks and push the limits of safety devices is a problem. It's the same on our roads, says Shutske; some people will drive faster because they have ABS or airbags. Other human factors stem from youth. "Children can't understand what it's like to be seriously injured," says Shutske. "And adolescents may think they can step over a piece of rotating machinery or drive too fast around a curve with a heavily loaded tractor or truck." But while child fatalities drop, more farmers over 65 are being injured or killed. Again, the analogy to driving cars applies: Sight, hearing, and reaction times are often impaired in the elderly. Also, says Shutske, the "average" principal farm operator is about 10 years older than the average person working in an urban area. To counter these factors, Shutske works hard to educate farmers and engineers on safety. In his department, students must take a three-credit course on safety in order to graduate. "It gives students an advantage in the workplace," says Shutske. They integrate safety in design and development. That's the direction the industry would like to go. Safety shouldn't be an afterthought. In Minnesota, we're becoming known for safety engineering." Shutske and departmental colleague Jonathan Chaplin work together to teach safety courses. Shutske heads a course in agricultural engineering safety, taught in the department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering, and Chaplin heads an industrial engineering safety course, taught in the mechanical engineering department. Through the University of Minnesota Extension Service, Shutske keeps a brisk schedule speaking to the Minnesota Farm Bureau and other groups to keep safety consciousness high in people's minds and to encourage the use of technology to reduce risk. Shutske also enlists powerful advocates with ties to farm families: doctors and nurses. Because they enjoy a high level of trust, they are effective at raising awareness of the potential for injury or death. "I tell physicians and nurses they need not be afraid to challenge the status quo," says Shutske. "We need to work together to change that situation. Everybody knows a neighbor or somebody who's been killed. People have to ask if that's acceptable."