Farmers enjoy their own work schedules, daily contact with the outdoors, the satisfaction of a connection to the land - but they also work at one of the country’s most hazardous careers.
Researchers at the Agriculture Department examined census data from 1992 and found 673 fatalities on U.S. farms that year, about one for every 2,861 farms in the country. Tractor rollover accidents often kill.
Nonfatal injuries took a much bigger toll, with almost 65,000 fractures, lacerations, sprains, eye injuries and other accidents that caused many farm workers to miss a few days to a week of activity. Of those, more than 44,000 were hired workers.
“Agriculture is an icon of American history, but it remains one of the most dangerous industries in America,” said Jerry Scannell, president of the National Safety Council.
Despite such a record, farming is subject to fewer regulations than almost any other industry, the Agriculture Department study found.
For instance, the Fair Labor Standards Act sets limits for child farm workers on age, hours worked and conditions - limits that don’t apply if the child works on a farm owned or operated by the parents.
There were 490 fatalities and 20,430 other injuries from mishaps involving farm operators and family members in 1992. Not all were children, but the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that 100 people under age 20 are killed on farms each year.
In addition, rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration long have exempted farms employing 10 or fewer workers and those “that do not maintain a labor camp.”
“OSHA regulations could apply to less than 3 percent of U.S. farms and cover less than 56 percent of hired workers on farms,” said Jack Runyan of USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Yet new regulations are unlikely on farmers, who have a long history of resisting labor restrictions. They point out that farming doesn’t operate by a 40-hour clock; it involves long hours using dangerous machinery and its tradition is for family members of all ages to pitch in.
Perhaps the most frequent cause of fatal accidents for all age groups is tractor rollovers. Once a multi-ton tractor hits a hole and starts to tip over, it’s difficult for the operator to jump free.
Tractor makers agreed as early as 1985 to begin selling only machines with rollover protection, but hundreds of thousands remain in use without the structures. Many also lack seat belts.
In fact, a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that although almost 40 percent of tractors in use in Iowa feature rollover protection structures, an estimated 156,000 tractors do not. Two-thirds of them are used more than 100 hours a year.
But not every farmer can afford to buy a new tractor. Five leading tractor makers, including Deere & Co. and New Holland North America, are encouraging dealers to offer rollover and seat belt kits at cost to farmers for the older machines. The estimated dealer cost of these kits is about $600, not counting freight and installation.