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Keeping farm families alive and well

By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
IOWA CITY– According to the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), agriculture is one of the nation’s most hazardous occupations. On average, 550 farmers die in agriculture related incidents every year. One-hundred kids, on average, are also killed on the farm. In Iowa, approximately 30 deaths per year occur, with three to four of those being children.
Obvious dangers include machinery, livestock and chemical exposure. However, death also comes from chronic conditions built up over time.
Roger Stutsman of Hills knows the dangers all too well.
Almost three years ago, his son Mike was killed while working on a piece of machinery. Today the memory and anguish are still so intense, Stutsman can barely talk about the incident. However, the tragedy of burying his son and would-be heir to the family farm, 150 years in the making, has spurred Stutsman on a crusade– and he’s found a willing band of agricultural health and safety warriors to join his cause.
Working in conjunction with Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH), the Johnson County Public Health Department, Iowa State University Extension, and various Iowa farm safety and health organizations, Stutsman and his board of directors plan to open the Johnson County Agricultural and Rural Health Service and Training Center. The facility housed in the new Johnson County Extension Office at the county fairground will serve as a “one-stop shop” for the safety and health needs of farmers, their families, and those they employ.
Discussion of the new center began in March of last year. Working with the Johnson County Health Department, a recommendation was made to the County Board of Supervisors for appropriating start-up dollars for the project. With the supervisors solidly behind the endeavor, the plans quickly moved forward with an expectation from the Board that services would be expanded beyond Johnson County.
The center, scheduled to open in early October, will have a half-time nurse trained specifically in the relatively new specialty of “agricultural medicine.” Shalome Tonelli, the nurse, will talk with clients about a total wellness package including injury/illness prevention on the farm, use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), screening for ag-related illnesses and treatment of occupational injuries. In addition, Tonelli will be able to test pulmonary function and help clients properly fit test respirators for working around grain dust or chemicals.
A “mother box” filled with PPE and first aid supplies will be available for purchase as a centralized supply bin on the farm. Additionally, personal PPE/first aid kits will also be available in a size similar to a common fanny pack. The goal is that anybody working on a farm will have the proper equipment with them, regardless of the task to be performed.
Expanding PPE use means convincing farmers to carry more than just a pair of work gloves. With skin cancer rates higher among farmers, the kits will include sun block. Constant exposure to loud machinery means higher rates of hearing loss, so a variety of ear protection will be included. Dust and mold are prevalent in grain handling, which leads to high rates of chronic lung conditions, so Tonelli will help farmers with respirators.
Specialized equipment, such as fall-protection harnesses will be available for rent, thus reducing the out-of-pocket expense to a farmer for rarely needed items.
The center will also heavily promote an I-CASH initiative known as Certified Safe Farm. By request, a health and safety audit can identify potential hazards and recommend a course of action. Stutsman and his board hope insurance companies will take notice and consider offering discounts to farmers who have earned the certification.
“If you build a program reducing the risks, you should be able to get a discount,” said board member Andy Winborn, who said insurance companies are always looking for ways to cut costs.
“The bottom line will drive this,” Stutsman said of the effort to get farmers– typically a fiercely independent group not keen on outsiders telling them what to do– to embrace changing how they operate.
Looking at the death and injury rates, Donham said there has been about a 40 percent decrease over the past several years, but “our work isn’t done.
“It’s getting better, and we’ve made some progress,” said Donham.
The center plans to rely on a combination of donations, fundraising and membership sales to become a self-sustaining organization. Sales and rental of PPE as well as ala carte services are also in the plans. Membership would entitle a client and his family to the array of educational, health and on-farm services. The center will also actively pursue grants.
“We want to build an income stream,” said Kelley Donham, Director of I-CASH. “We fully expect the agricultural community to pay for this,” he added, looking at an approximately $100,000 annual budget. At least half, Donham says, is expected to come through payment for services rendered.
The Stutsman family knows investing in safety on the front end could ultimately spare someone else the dearest cost of all.
“I know it’s what Mike wants,” Stutsman said of the effort. “If I can just save one person from what I’m going through.”
For information, contact Roger Stutsman at 319-325-4675.