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Editorial: Family farms should learn from U.S. Navy

When it comes to safety, maybe the “sailors” across America’s amber waves of grain can learn from the sailors on the deep blue sea.  For while U.S. Navy personnel work with weapons and machinery in some of the most hazardous environments in the world, Navy ships, subs and aircraft are safe environments. That’s a contrast with farming, which routinely makes the lists of either the most hazardous or among the most hazardous occupations in America.  So, in response to stories such as the Star Tribune of Minneapolis’ new “Tragic Harvest” series, perhaps American agriculture could take a page from the Navy’s logbook.  

“At nearly all workplaces in America today, regulators, insurers and workers themselves demand safeguards to make it less likely for a careless mistake to become a tragedy,” the Star Tribune reported Sunday.  “Coal mines, factories and construction sites are safer as a result.  “Not the family farm. Minnesota and other Midwestern states allow small farmers to rely on their own judgment and experience to decide what’s safe and what isn’t. State and federal budget cuts have slashed farm training and safety programs, even as farm machines have become more powerful and more dangerous.”  And “deaths are on the rise,” the newspaper continued.  “More than 210 work-related deaths occurred on Minnesota farms from 2003 to 2013 — an increase of more than 30 percent when compared with a decade earlier. A Star Tribune review of those fatal cases shows that at least two-thirds involved practices that violate federal workplace rules.”  There’s no secret to safety in the Navy; just the opposite. The Navy makes safety a priority and devotes lots of time, money and attention to it. So, personnel get trained in safety procedures, from enlisted recruits learning how to handle lines to Naval Academy midshipmen getting taught the nautical rules of the road.  

The training then intensifies at sea. “Man overboard” and firefighting drills are common. Sailors see safe operations as a big part of their job; so, for example, technicians almost never fail to “tag out” the machinery they’re working on, as their checklists and procedures don’t allow it.  Needless to say, there are huge differences between sailing a ship and running a farm. A big one is scale: The Navy is huge, with money and manpower to “professionalize” safety. In contrast, most farms employ few people, and individual farmers often find themselves working alone.  Even so, what agriculture likely needs is some way of institutionalizing safety and keeping it a priority at all times. Farms, like other businesses, need safety programs, with formal listings of do’s and don’ts. Farms also need training plans, not only to keep people skilled in safe operations but also to help them avoid shortcuts that pose unacceptable risks.  Ag extension agencies seem like the most promising vehicles for developing these programs and plans. If that means making safety a priority in extension staffing and funding, so be it.  

It’s not impossible for people by the thousands to work around dangerous machinery at all hours of the day and night and in all kinds of weather without incident. Sailors do it. And with the proper attention from industry, government and the individuals themselves, farmers surely can, too.