Guest Column: Pointers for a safe harvest season

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Over the next few weeks, I will join thousands of other farmers in the fields harvesting corn, soybeans and other crops in a race with Mother Nature. For farmers, harvest is the most exciting and grueling time of the year. Many of us will work long hours into the night to get our crops harvested in time. It’s important to get the job done on time, but it is just as important to get it done safely.

Each year, we see a peak in the number of farm injuries around harvest time. These incidents are tragic but avoidable aspects of farm life. That’s why it is fitting that National Farm Safety and Health Week (Sept. 15-21) came just as our harvest season was heating up. It was a great reminder to all of us that there is more at stake in the fields and silos than just a profit margin.

According to John Shutske, a farm safety and health specialist with the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service, 30 people died on Minnesota farm workplaces in 2001. That’s up from 22 the year before, and up from an annual average of 25 fatalities over the previous six years.

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Our goal should be to get that number down to zero, and it’s a goal we can reach if we keep some important safety tips in mind during harvest and throughout the year.

According to the Extension Service, the most common farm-related cause of death in Minnesota in the last year was being pinned under or between a tractor or other piece of equipment. Other causes of death included falls, roadway accidents, being suffocated under grain, and becoming entangled in a power take-off.

There are some simple steps farmers can take to prevent tragedies. These steps include:

Prepare machines before the harvest starts. Perform routine maintenance and replace worn parts well in advance of harvest. Machinery breakdowns during harvest are likely to result in frustration or anger that can add stress and increase a farmer’s chance of having an accident.

Take the time be safe. During harvest, it is tempting to take shortcuts that save time but may compromise safety. Farmers should always block up the combine header before working underneath it, and they should make sure safety shields are in place when operating equipment.

Be cautious on the road. In Minnesota, 69 percent of all fatal motor crashes happen in rural areas. The fall harvest season is a particularly dangerous time on rural roads because many farm tractors, combines and other vehicles share the road with motorists. Speed is the biggest single factor affecting the severity of a highway crash, so drivers can help themselves and others by driving within the posted speed limit. Farmers can also help by making their slow-moving vehicles as visible as possible.

Be prepared for combine fires. Farmers should keep the combine and other equipment as clean as possible to minimize the chance of fire. They should watch for sources of combustible materials that could lead to a fire. They should make sure they have at least one ten-pound ABC dry chemical fire extinguisher on every combine.

Take breaks to stay alert. Taking several short breaks helps farmers reduce their stress and risk of injury. It’s important to get down off a machine every two hours or so, even just to stretch your legs for five minutes. Eating healthy snacks such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help keep energy levels high.

In addition to these steps, farmers should keep in mind the risks that come after harvest. As they store grain, farmers face the risk of being trapped underneath flowing grain in silos. They also face the risk of inhaling dangerous gases that can build up in the storage buildings following harvest.

For more information about what farmers and others can do to make the 2002 harvest our safest ever, check out the Extension Service Web site at

Gene Hugoson is the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.