UI College of Public Health helps start website where farmers who have suffered injuries can warn other farmers to be careful
Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Brian Egel knows what happens if you’re not careful on the farm, if you let your attention slip for even a moment.

He lost his left arm in an auger accident when he was 8 years old. He’s broken his leg twice, once when he fell off a tractor and another time when a boar rolled over on his leg. A shoulder injury while sorting cows required surgery, and he has carpal tunnel syndrome. The injuries, he says, give him license to warn other farmers and farm workers to pay attention to what they do.

“I want to tell them to be careful when you’re working, to not hurry anything or cut corners, because that’s when you get in trouble,” says Egel, now 56, who farms near Nichols, Iowa, in Muscatine County. “I want to point out the dos and don’ts that keep people safe.”

To help spread his message, Egel shared his story with the Telling the Story Project, a farm safety initiative developed in part by the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health located in the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

“Our goal is to use farmers’ words, insight, and advice in a way that makes safety messages more credible with other farmers who understand their own way of life,” says Stephanie Leonard, occupational safety manager in the Great Plains Center. “Farmers talking to farmers is the groundwork for any kind of effort to improve farm safety.”

Share your story

The Telling the Story Project is looking for more experiences from farmers and farm workers to share on the website. Project manager Stephanie Leonard invites those who have a story to share to contact her at reachus@tellingthestoryproject.org.

The project’s most visible presence is a website at www.tellingthestoryproject.org, where farmers from around the Midwest share their experiences in the hopes of helping other farmers reduce accidents and prevent injuries.

The website so far has eight long feature stories and numerous shorter vignettes featuring farmers discussing the circumstances of their injuries. There’s Leon Sheets of Ionia, Iowa, who suffered second- and third-degree burns when an LP heater ignited methane gas and caused a flash fire in his barn; Kenny Patterson of Cherokee, Iowa, whose thigh bone snapped when the ATV he was driving on a slope rolled over and he had to drag himself on his elbows a quarter-mile back to his house; and Brian Forrest of Stratford, Wisconsin, who lost a finger clearing out a manure handler because he was in too much of a hurry to turn off the motor.

The idea for the storytelling project came when Leonard investigated workplace deaths and injuries as part of another UI project, the Iowa Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) Program, and learned agricultural-related fatalities made up about 30 percent of all workplace deaths in Iowa during a typical year, even though agricultural workers made up less than 10 percent of the state’s employment base. Having grown up on a farm near Holstein, Iowa, Leonard says she knew that farm work was inherently more dangerous than most other occupations. She found the number of injuries and circumstances surrounding them to be compelling in a personal way that statistics alone didn’t convey.

A colleague wondered if sharing the accounts of her investigations with a wider audience could persuade other farmers to take greater care in their work. The lingering idea led to a collaboration that created a place to share those stories and recommendations for prevention among the Great Plains Center, the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the University of Minnesota. The website was officially introduced in June, with funding to the ag centers through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Leonard says the hope is to create a resource that encourages farmers to communicate with each other more about farm injuries so they can learn from one another and take steps to improve safety on their own farms.

“Too often, farmers don’t tell anyone when they’re injured or have close calls, and they say it’s because they don’t want their wife or family to worry or something like that,” Leonard says. “We want to encourage farmers to talk about it, to communicate, so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Perhaps most tragically, the website tells the story of Mike Biadasz, a young farmer in Amherst, Wisconsin, who died when hydrogen sulfide gas was released from a manure lagoon he was stirring on a foggy morning. Because of the fog, the toxic gas concentrated near the ground instead of dispersing into the open air as it normally would, asphyxiating Biadasz and 16 head of cattle.

Leonard says all of the stories are examples of injuries that can be prevented if farmers take extra care while working to foresee a worst-case outcome before it happens. She’s had little difficulty convincing people to tell their stories so far.

“They tell me that they’d be glad to share it so that something good might come from something bad,” says Leonard, who writes the stories herself after interviewing the people involved. “Mike’s family had been frequently telling the story about his death before we shared it because nobody even realized something like that could occur in an open environment. They wanted people to know that it could. That’s what this project is about.”

Pam Finke, Egel’s wife, says the website offers more than safety advice to prevent injuries. The stories also tell the resilience of the human spirit and determination to go on even after a serious injury.

“Brian is an example of survival,” says Finke, who also is the director of ticket operations for the UI Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. “It’s one thing to tell people to remember to be safe, but these stories also show that if you are injured, you still have a future, that your life and your farming career aren’t over.”