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Ways to stay safe during harvest

The community health director for AgriSafe Network shares her insights into farm safety during harvest season.

Curt Arens

September 16, 2022

5 Min Read
Caution farm machinery sign along side road and corn field
CARE DURING HARVEST: It takes extra safety precautions and special personal care to have a safe and successful harvest season.Allkindza/Getty images

Farming and ranching are among the most dangerous occupations, hands down. If you don’t believe this to be true, count your own “close calls” on the road, in the field or in the farmyard. Numbers don’t lie.

Over the past 10 years, the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health found through a news clipping service at least 29 tractor-related fatalities, ranging in ages from 30 to 87. Tractor rollovers have become the deadliest type of farm accident.

In that same period, at least 13 people were killed in grain-bin engulfment or fall-related accidents, ranging in age from 13 to 79. Road accidents, and accidents related to ATVs and UTVs — as well as entanglements, livestock accidents, and assorted other fatal calamities including drownings and pinnings under heavy equipment — have taken scores of other sons, daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives from their families.

Stay healthy

Harvest, as everyone knows, is crunch time on the farm, and it is also one of the most dangerous. We asked Linda Emanuel, registered nurse and community health director for AgriSafe Network in Nebraska, to offer tips for producers and their families during this stressful and busy time of year.

“As a clinician, I approach the human factors as priority when considering the physically and mentally taxing work of harvest,” she says. “A healthy farmer is a safe farmer.”

There are, Emanuel says, challenges during harvest that can make for more dangerous situations. Tackling these five challenges can keep producers safer:

1. Sleep debt. “This is a major contributing factor during long workdays and short nights of harvest,” Emanuel says. “According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sleep deficiency is now identified as a public health problem. GPS technology, LED lighting, equipment design and function, global food demands, markets, weather events, and family dynamics push producers to work past the physical and mental limitations of the body.

“Sleep deprivation causes a pendulum swing of disproportionate emotions from irritable and antsy, to giddy, to a state of vicious negativity. Under-slept adults are more apt to be self-absorbed in problems or themselves, leading to faulty decision-making and possibly more risk-taking behaviors.”

Emanuel notes that being awake for 21 hours straight equals the effects of a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 intoxication.

But there are ways to practice good sleep habits, even during harvest. “Go to bed and wake up at the same time of day, no matter what,” Emanual suggests. “Create mental triggers before bedtime, like we do for children, like taking a warm bath, read a book, eat a light snack or write out a ‘to-do’ list for the next day.”

2. Shortcuts. “Working long hours many days in a row increases risks for burnout, injury and stress,” Emanuel says. “The busyness of the season often throttles up the pace of farmworkers. Routine maintenance and simple housekeeping of farm machinery is often put aside.”

Thus, the often-repeated axiom, “This accident could have been avoided had I not been in such a hurry.”

Emanuel suggests trying to slow down the pace and not take shortcuts to help ensure safety for farmers and those working around harvest.

“Be mindful of work practices by taking a moment to stop, think and then act,” she recommends. Use the following checklist to help:

  • Stop. What could go wrong? How bad could it be? Has anything changed?

  • Think. Do I clearly understand the task? Am I physically and mentally ready? Do I have the right tools?

  • Act. Make it safe. Use the right tool. Follow proper procedures. Reduce risks.

3. Bad diet. Producers eat differently during harvest. “Studies show that farmers have a low intake of fruits and vegetables and a high intake of fried foods, salt and sugary snacks,” Emanuel observes. “Eat better and feel better to work safer and improve your mood. Healthy one-handed meals with a variety of all the food groups will provide the necessary vitamins, minerals and nutrients needed to perform optimally.”

She suggests stopping machinery operation periodically to climb out of the cab to eat and hydrate. These breaks allow farmers to stretch muscles, restore balance and increase heart rate and mental alertness. There are other diet-related tips:

  • Do not skip meals, especially breakfast.

  • Quench your thirst with water instead of drinks with added sugars.

  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water especially if you are active, an older adult, or live and work in hot conditions.

Emanuel understands that drinking lots of fluids will mean that nature will call more often out in the field. “Well, yes, that is true,” Emanuel admits, “but, because of this, you will be provided an opportunity to get out of the tractor or combine, check the tires and give your body a much-needed break.”

4. Clothing issues. “Equipment operators should be dressed for comfort and safety,” Emanuel says. “Pull the drawstrings out of hoodies to avoid entanglement. Toss jeans with frayed holes or hems, and wear bright-colored clothing to be seen during the day and night. Wear well-fitted protective work boots.”

5. Mental stress. Cognitive or “brain health” supports effective decision-making, problem-solving, emotional regulation, relationships, integration, situational awareness, behavioral choices, memory and reality testing, Emanual says.

“Strong cognitive health includes the ability to focus, the ability to avoid distractions and stable, short-term and long-term memory,” she says. “Disorganization and distractions can lead to work injuries. Unaddressed stress, illness and aging can negatively impact the effective cognitive functioning of agricultural producers. If you feel your cognitive health is at risk, consider talking to a health professional.”

Resources to help

The good news is that there are plenty of resources to help during harvest and other times of the year to stay healthy and safe. Here are just a few:

Get more information by contacting Emanuel at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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