CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — While the excitement of spring planting season appeals to young and old, it is also a time to be aware of safety.
For some, the dangers of working in agriculture never leave their minds. Almost seven years ago, two of Will Piper’s teenage friends died in a grain bin where he was also trapped for six hours.
It’s still hard for him to talk about it, but he does because he wants other young people to know how to advocate for their own safety while working in agriculture.
The Grain Handling Safety Coalition — a group founded because of this incident — released a video earlier this year that reminds young people, employers and farmers of the danger of agricultural work.
The “Grain Bin Entrapment: Seconds to Tragedy” video starts with the startling 911 call from that July 28 day when the four boys were working inside a grain bin to break up corn clumps at Consolidated Grain and Barge Co. in Mount Carroll.
The video documents how Wyatt Whitebread 14, passed out from the heat and became entrapped in the grain. Friends Alex Pacas, 19, and Piper, 20 at the time, tried to rescue him. Chris Lawton, 15, climbed out of the bin to call 911 and get help. Pacas also died that day.
In the video, Piper tells what it was like.
“One I felt his last heartbeat. That’s going to mess anybody up,” Piper said.
In the video, Lawton says if young workers see their employer has put them in an unsafe position, they should “walk away.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Marsha Salzwedel, youth rural safety specialist at Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation/National Farm Medicine Center in Wisconsin. “It is hard to see because often these situations are preventable. They don’t have to happen.”
Every three days, a child dies in an agriculture-related incident, and each day, 33 children are injured, according to the 2017 Childhood Agricultural Injuries Fact Sheet compiled by the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wisconsin.
The leading sources of fatalities are machinery (25 percent), motor vehicles/ATVs (17 percent) and drowning (16 percent).
In the video, Wyatt’s mother said her son was trusting that the employer would make sure he was safe.
The company was cited for multiple violations of child labor and safety laws and ordered to pay $18 million to the families.
“Safety costs a little or costs a lot,” said Peggy Romba, program manager of member services and public relations for the Illinois Farm Bureau.
No money is worth a life, Piper says in the video.
Often, farmers don’t realize labor laws to protect children under age 16 are in effect if the child is working for a grandparent or a neighbor, said Bob Aherin, University of Illinois Extension safety specialist. A child that age is not allowed to work on a livestock operation with the animals, with chemicals including pesticides or anhydrous, or in grain storage buildings.
This time of year, there are people moving grain as well as other spring operations, he noted. People employing youths need to be aware of the rules and make safety accommodations, Aherin said.
Under child labor laws, youths are not allowed to drive equipment for someone else unless they are at least 14 or 15 years old and have taken and passed a 21-hour training program to become certified, he said.
“We understand the intrinsic value of children working with their parents and getting the youth interested agriculture,” said Aherin.
But he still cringes when young people ride on tractors and other equipment with family members. One of the biggest risks for injury or death is falling off tractors, he said.
Only the driver’s seat on farm equipment has shock absorbers, so if a child is standing on the tractor platform or sitting on another seat, the child is vulnerable to be thrown off. In a moving tractor, reaction time is 8 to 10 feet, he said.
Large farm equipment today has many blind spots, Aherin added. And cultivators and other equipment with sharp edges are particularly dangerous for youngsters who like to climb.
Often farmers don’t think twice about letting a mature youth help with planting or tillage operations in the spring. But there is danger if the youth is not adequately trained.
If there is a sudden challenge with a tractor, going in a ditch or catching equipment on something, the operator needs to do several things at once — maybe turn the wheel with one hand, push the clutch with a foot, and raise equipment with another hand.
Youths haven’t developed these “simultaneous motor skills” until they are about 14 years old, Aherin said.
Aherin worked on a project with Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation that outlines age appropriates tasks. Find it at https://tinyurl.com/n6cphm6.