Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Farms have always been a part of Kayla Faust’s life.

She grew up in Manchester and Marion, Iowa, spending part of her childhood on a farm and joining groups like FFA and 4-H in school. Friends, uncles, and cousins all had farms that she visited frequently, and she still helps work their land.

Her husband also grew up a farmer and they plan to return someday, partly so they can raise their children in the same manner they so fondly remember.

“And I’m going to have them doing farm chores, like kids do in a farm family,” she says.

But her kids won’t be driving a tractor or operating dangerous equipment until they’re ready. The results of her research at the University of Iowa have shown her that’s not a good idea.

Faust is a doctoral student in the UI College of Public Health studying occupational injury prevention, which seeks to reduce the number of people who are injured on the job. Given her background, it’s not surprising that most of her work is about agricultural safety, a significant field for occupational safety because farming is one of the most dangerous professions in the U.S. Statistics from the federal government show about 100 agricultural workers suffer a lost-time work injury every day, and the workplace mortality rate for farm workers is 19 per 100,000, far above the 3.6 per 100,000 injury rate overall.

Faust’s particular focus is on transportation safety and making rural roads safer for drivers of both farm and non-farm vehicles. For that she’s using the university’s National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), one of only two such simulators in the world and the only one that’s not privately owned. Faust has developed a virtual reality simulation that puts farmers on virtual rural roads, driveways, and fields so she can study potentially dangerous driving situations. The simulator controls are designed to look like the cab of a typical farm vehicle, and it even makes a sound approximating the deafening rumble of an engine.

Data from the studies can then be used to make design changes to farm vehicles or roads that improve safety.

She’s currently working with farmers around Iowa to take the simulator for a test drive, gathering their input to make it even more realistic so she can collect more accurate information. As part of her project, Faust is looking for farmers over the age of 65 to drive the simulator. It would require a single 60- to 90-minute simulated driving session at the NADS research laboratory in Coralville. For more information, contact Faust at kayla-faust@uiowa.edu or call 319-350-8175.

What drew you to a career in public health?

I’ve always wanted to help people, and I’ve always been a problem solver. I thought about going to medical school for a while. But after receiving my bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa, I had an opportunity to pursue doctoral studies in public health, and I decided to do that because the College of Public Health has been so active in agricultural safety. I’ve been involved in research to improve grain bin safety and develop improved rescue techniques for people trapped in grain bins, and also protecting farmers’ hearing. We’re one of the leading research centers for agricultural safety, which makes sense because Iowa is a farm state and we have so many opportunities to observe farmers in their natural environment.

Children have traditionally operated large farm vehicles, but volumes of research show that can be very dangerous. How can your research change this way of thinking?

I was part of a research team that studied farm vehicle crashes involving children and found many of them were due to the fact that the children were driving a vehicle they weren’t ready to operate. They might also be sitting in a place where they should not be—for instance, on the fender of the wheel—or they may not be secured in the cab with a seatbelt. Up to 34 percent of farm injuries and fatalities among youth were caused by rollovers or run-overs, and children under the age of 5 were more likely to be injured on a tractor than any other mechanism on a farm.

Young children lack the size, reach, vision, and strength to adequately maneuver large farm equipment on roadways, and they have immature decision-making and reasoning skills that are vital to operating equipment on roads safely.

What sorts of policies can improve safety for children on farms?

I have a farming background. I drove a tractor as a kid. I understand the need for farmers to sometimes have their children do things that might be dangerous. And I don’t think that adopting a policy is going to solve those problems. I want to make design changes and develop safety recommendations for farmers and other road users that improve safety. I don’t want to increase safety through policy.

Tradition is important in farming, and it’s hard to change a 68-year-old farmer’s mind by telling him that something he’s done his whole life is dangerous and he shouldn’t do it anymore. Adopting a policy that tells a farmer not to put a 12-year-old on a tractor isn’t going to keep a 12-year-old off a tractor.

We have to find a balance, some way to show farmers there are safer ways of doing things without telling them. We have to slowly change the culture by working with farmers. We have to go out and spend time with them while they work. I volunteer at farms of my friends and family through the year because it’s important to stay involved and stay connected with the community, to integrate into that way of life and understand their time constraints. I want to empower people with the knowledge and ability to be safe without policy. I don’t want to propose a solution that farmers won’t like.

Ultimately, it’s about encouraging the farmer to select chores that are appropriate to the child’s mental, physical, and emotional development. There’s a set of guidelines called the North American Guidelines for Children’s Agricultural Tasks—NAGCAT—that can help families determine when their children have reached a level of development for certain activities. I plan to use them with my own children.

How does NADS’ state-of-the-art driving simulator help your research?

In my research, we can use the simulator to put drivers into dangerous situations that we could never put them in in real life, such as when a deer suddenly runs into the road, or the sun is shining in the driver’s eyes. On the simulator, we can do that in a safe environment where we control for all elements so every driver is in the same situation.

Right now, I’m working with farmers to make sure the simulator feels right. One comment I’ve been hearing is that the steering is too responsive on the simulator, that farm equipment doesn’t turn as smoothly. This isn’t a video game. It has to be as realistic as possible, so it’s as far from a video game as we can get. Once we have that set, we’ll start running simulations and gathering data.