Indiana is one of the few states that still tracks farm fatalities and serious injuries, and issues a report annually through the state Extension safety specialist. Bill Field and his assistant, Charlene Cheng, recently released the 2016 Indiana Farm Fatality Summary With Historical Overview. The report is one year behind because it takes time to collect and summarize the data. Purdue University has issued similar reports for over 55 years, with the earliest known summary dating back to 1960.
The 2016 summary is not one Field is particularly proud of, simply because 44 farm-related fatalities were documented. That’s 47% higher than the average number of fatalities per year since 1970, which stands at 29.9. It’s the third-highest number in the past 47 years, eclipsed only by 54 deaths in 1981 and 49 deaths in 1990.
Overall, the trend over the past 47 years has been toward fewer deaths per year, Field says. Only eight people died in 2006, the lowest number recorded in those 47 years. Yet 2016 marks the third year in a row of increasing farm fatalities, ending 57% higher than the 2015 total of 28. The 10-year average is 25.2 deaths per year. But the three-year average for 2014 through 2016 is 32.3 fatalities per year.
Field hopes 2016 is an outlier, meaning that it’s way off the trend line, which is still toward fewer deaths per year. What it does do, however, is serve as a stark reminder that farming is still one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S.
This data doesn’t include farm fatalities due to motor vehicle crashes involving farm trucks, heart attacks or heat stress occurring during work activities. It also doesn’t include medical complications from workplace hazards. And since there are no reporting requirements for farm fatalities, Field doesn’t claim it to be an all-inclusive summary. It’s based on newspaper clippings and other reports the Purdue staff obtains.
Hope for future
There is still a slight downward trend in farm deaths since 1970, and Field hopes that trend will reassert itself this year. “There are many reasons why the number of farm fatalities has gone down over time,” he says. “There are many fewer farms and people working on farms, and there have been advancements in machinery safety and durability. Today’s equipment is more productive, so fewer works are needed to get the same or more work done.”
Field adds that more people are aware of the financial impact of serious injuries and deaths today. A spinal cord injury can now result in a million-dollar health care bill over that person’s life.
Training programs for medical first responders and advancements in medical techniques for treatment of serious injuries compared to 50 years ago also contribute to fewer fatalities, Field believes. Even quicker access and transport of patients from rural areas to centers that can provide immediate care has made chances for surviving once-fatal accidents more realistic.
What’s missing from all this reasoning is proof that it’s working. Instead, a year like 2016 pops up, which stands out like a red flag.
Still, Field is undaunted, and hopes you are, as well. “Achieving zero incidents may be an unattainable goal,” he says. “But the record over time shows that the problem is diminishing, however slowly. Many tragic incidents have been prevented during the same time, as Indiana farmers have become more productive and efficient than at any time in history.”