Agriculture ranks third by industry as the most dangerous occupation, behind only construction and transportation/warehousing, according to statistics released last month by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). More than 300 crop farmers died from work-related accidents last year – nearly double the number of miners who died, reports the DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in preliminary data from its annual Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

The bottom line is that raising a crop is dangerous and corn farmers need to be especially safety conscious this time of year, says Bob Aherin, Extension agricultural safety specialist, University of Illinois (U of I). “Harvesttime is the most likely period for farm-related injury accidents and fatalities,” he says. “Planting is the second most-likely period.”

Given the lateness in how this year’s corn crop is maturing, with generally higher moisture content than normal likely, corn growers may be tempted to take more risks than usual to avoid field losses as the harvest window closes, says Mark Hanna, Iowa State University Extension ag engineer. However, he cautions against hastiness.

“If you do get behind, remember that just feeling under the gun to harvest the crop quickly is a safety issue,” warns Hanna. “Haste makes waste, and it often leads to accidents, injury and sometimes death.”

To avoid a tragedy on your farm this fall, Hanna and Aherin identify the following top-six corn harvest killers and provide safety tips to prevent them:

1. Tractor accidents. Running over or striking a person with a tractor is an all-too-common fatal occurrence on a crop farm, says Aherin. “If you have small children around, it’s essential to keep them away from the equipment and have a fenced-in area where they can play safely,” he says. “Both talk to your kids about the risk and have someone supervising them at all times.”

He also advises to check behind the tractor before backing up and to slow down when driving tractors around buildings, grain bins or other objects that may obstruct your view. In addition, all tractors should be equipped with a rollover protection system (ROPS).

“A tractor is involved in 43-50% of all farm fatalities each year,” says Aherin. “Of those fatalities, 60% are from tractor turnovers or rollovers, which often occur when mowing ditches.”

For more information on ROPS equipment for tractors, go to the National Ag Safety Database.

2. Other farm equipment accidents. “The usual fatal injuries at corn harvest include getting crushed underneath the head,” says Hanna. “So, make sure you lock and block the head mechanically before getting underneath it. Also disengage the power of the combine and shut off the engine before leaving the operator’s station to work on something.”

Other possible fatal accidents in this category include getting caught in augers and power takeoff equipment; falling off wagons and combines and getting run over; and being involved in an all-terrain vehicle turnover accident, says Aherin. Extra caution is advised when using or working around this type of equipment, and kids should be kept off vehicles that aren’t made for them as passengers, he adds.

“At harvesttime, children will often want to ride on tractors, wagons and combines,” he says. “However, allowing kids to do so will put them at significant risk. Many of these vehicles have inadequate shock absorption capabilities, and kids can easily be thrown off and run over, and this happens every year.”

Falls from farm equipment are very common, even for adults, says Hanna. “The most common injury at harvest is to fall off the combine,” he emphasizes. “So, keep the operator’s platform and the steps leading into the combine cab clear of debris, mud, ice and snow, and use the handrails.”

Farmers should also keep a 5-lb. fire extinguisher in the cab and a 20-lb. fire extinguisher mounted on the outside of the combine, says Hanna, who recommends keeping all hot surfaces on the combine clean. This includes the engine, oil lines, turbo chargers and bearing surfaces.

3. Roadway-related accidents. “One chief area of concern for farm safety is the whole roadway issue out in the country during harvesttime,” says Aherin. “Most country roadways are too narrow to accommodate large machinery, which can now take up 16-20 ft. in width – or more than two lanes of traffic.”

Farmers should do all they can do to ensure other vehicle drivers have at least 1,000 ft. of view ahead of any farm equipment on the road, Aherin advises. “That’s why I don’t recommend moving large equipment at night, in fog or in low-light conditions, because visibility is greatly reduced in these situations,” he says. “In addition, farmers should ensure that they have reflective SMV emblems rated to meet the minimum American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers (ASABE) standard of S276.5 or greater and use flashing lights both day and night when on the road.”

Inspecting safety lights and emblems should become a daily practice, recommends Hanna. In particular, farmers should regularly inspect all red rear lights and amber flashing lights on combines, carts, wagons, tractors and trucks to make sure they are working and clearly visible, he says.

In addition to roadway safety issues, farmers need to acknowledge the potential liability issues when taking large machinery out on the road, adds Aherin. “Farmers can avoid big potential problems by transporting their headers from field to field on trailers or adjusting them to transport position when traveling short distances,” he says. “If you need to travel on roads with curves or hills, you should have an escort vehicle with you.”

4. Grain-storage-related accidents. Typically, accidents in this category involve falls from grain bins and suffocation, says Aherin. “We recommend installing railings on the roof and around the hatch opening on grain bins to prevent falls,” he says. “The ideal ladder is more of a staircase that includes handrails.”

Suffocation inside grain wagons and bins while unloading is another common harvest fatality, he adds. “It takes about 3-4 seconds before grain is up to the knees, and at that point, it’s too late to escape,” says Aherin. “It takes approximately 14 seconds until the whole body is submerged.”

5. Electrocutions. The No. 1 cause of electrocution on the farm is an auger that hits a power line when being moved, says Aherin. Combines and other equipment loaded onto trailers can also hit power lines and can cause electrocutions, as can raising the bed of a truck to unload, he adds. Avoid using aluminum ladders when working around power lines for the same reason.

Using an electrical power washer in an old building that isn’t grounded properly is the second-most common cause of an on-farm electrocution, says Aherin. “To be grounded properly, you need a ground fault circuit interrupter in the main power box in the outlet itself,” he says. “A second option is to buy a heavy-duty extension cord that comes with a ground fault circuit interrupter.”

6. Anhydrous ammonia accidents. “Anhydrous ammonia is one of the most dangerous products that we commonly use on the farm, and farmers need to be prepared for the risks of a hose breaking or valves coming open,” says Aherin. “A direct blast of anhydrous ammonia in the face can kill, or at minimum destroy lung and eye tissue. Farmers should always wear a full face mask when hooking up the lines to protect their nose, mouth, eyes and lungs.”

In addition, farmers should carry 5-10 gal. of water in their tractor and on the nurse tank to apply to skin and eyes quickly if an anhydrous accident occurs.

Most deaths and severe accidents on the farm occur when people are alone. So, Aherin advises having someone check in on you every half-hour or hour, either by phone or visually. Carrying a cell phone is another good safety practice that could help emergency crews locate you after an accident, he adds.

Farmers should also make sure they get enough rest and take frequent breaks during harvest to decrease the amount of mental mistakes that can lead to accidents and injury. “Sleep deprivation can be very detrimental,” he emphasizes. “To achieve normal alertness levels, most people need 7-8 hours of sleep. Likewise, to maintain or recharge alertness levels, workers need to take a 10-15 minute break and get some nourishment every 2-3 hours.”

To read more tips about farm safety, go to U of I Extension. To view the latest occupational injury report from the DOL, go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.