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Corn+Soybean Digest

Specialists Pinpoint Top 12 Research Areas to Deal with Ag Dangers

Specialists from 18 land-grant universities, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health worked two years on this agenda, said Robert Aherin, University of Illinois Extension safety specialist. They zeroed in on those issues that universities would be best suited to address, based on their abilities.

"Engineering is an obvious and effective area of expertise," said Aherin, one of four members assigned to a sub-committee that wrote the draft report. "If you can design out a problem in the first place, you don't have to worry about training someone to avoid the hazard."

The committee identified, categorized, and ranked a broad list of research priorities. The top four priorities on the list of 12 include:

  • Sensors and guarding systems. Tractor overturns, machinery entanglements and exposure to toxic environments account for most injuries and fatalities on a farm. The expanded use of sensors and enhanced guarding systems could play an important role in reducing injury rates.

    "For example, it could be possible for a sensor to detect when a tractor is in an unstable mode, override the controls and shut it off," said Aherin.

  • Operating agricultural equipment on public roads. "The size of farms is increasing and farm machinery has become heavier, wider and faster," said Aherin. "What's more, the urban public is interacting with these vehicles on roads that were built in the 1940's."

    Needed research related to this problem includes rural road design, licensing of operators and enhanced marking and lighting of agricultural equipment.

  • Agricultural confined spaces. These spaces include manure storage facilities and crop storage structures. Because it is likely that all agricultural confined spaces will eventually be regulated, Aherin said there is a need for research and Extension efforts on topics such as ventilation systems and safe entrance procedures.

    "For example," he noted, "there has always been a drowning issue with grain bins. Right now, an operator wears a safety rope that's tied off on a ladder, which is normally installed on the inside bin wall. If he moves to the other side of the bin, there's too much slack in the rope to protect him if he falls through. We need to develop a system where the safety rope can be tied off overhead, maybe on a monorail cable attached to the roof. But all that has to be researched and designed."

  • Emerging technologies. New technologies can contribute significantly to the safety and health of ag workers. One such technology is global positioning systems (GPS).

    "GPS could help locate a farmer if he's not responding to calls," said Aherin. "Accidents can happen anywhere on a farm and if no one knows there's a problem, the injured worker can lay hurt for hours. A gyroscope linked to the GPS system could alert someone that a tractor has overturned and a sensor on the machine would tell them exactly where that tractor is located."

The remaining items on the list identify other areas of needed research and include human factors engineering and design; management of agricultural emergencies; livestock handling and housing systems; public policy issues; capital and management intensive vs. family labor intensive operations; fire detection and suppression; agricultural safety education and training; and special populations and enterprises.

Adequate funding for this research is the major issue addressed in the list of recommendations included at the end of the report.

"We're recommending that administrators adopt ag safety and health as a priority," said Aherin. "This means they would support the need for special allocations in safety research and/or encourage the use of land-grant system funds to support safety research in general.

"We would also like to see the USDA incorporate ag safety and health research within their research and Extension agenda," Aherin continued. "It's never been on their top priority agenda before and we feel it's warranted. That alone would help us gain support from the land-grant university system, because it would show them the USDA sees it as a priority."

Additionally, the report recommends that the USDA establish a competitive research grants program with a minimum of $15 million of annual funding, as well as increase the Extension competitive grants program to $15 million annually.

The entire report, titled "The National Agenda for Action, National Land Grant Research and Extension Agenda for Agricultural Safety and Health," can be found at

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