Farm Safety

You don’t have to be involved in farming long to understand why it ranks among the most hazardous professions. Farmers do a wide variety of tasks, and many of them are inherently risky.

We learn to be wary of things like power take-offs on tractors and not reaching into equipment without first turning it off. Silo gas can be deadly when a silo is being filled with fermenting, chopped corn.

The trap doors in the floor of a barn’s haymow can be dangerous if left open after dropping down hay or straw bales to the lower level. My father spent time in intensive care after pulling out a bale to access a new level of small bales in the mow. As he tugged on it, the bale string broke and he fell backwards down the hay hole behind him. He landed on the concrete floor below, resulting in a broken shoulder blade and cheekbone.

Manure pits carry their own special dangers, as do tasks as simple as backing up a big piece of equipment when someone might be standing in the operator’s blind spot. The variety of potential mishaps around a farm are many. Let me tell you about a recent one at our farm.

Dennis and I received an offer from longtime friends to join them for a few days at a beach house they rent annually in North Carolina. They’ve invited us previously, but their September rental dates had always conflicted with our Penn State home football game schedule — which wasn’t a problem this year.

The beach house has seven bedrooms and nine baths, and just the four of us were scheduled to be there. And, the house has its own private swimming pool, so even in the era of COVID-19 contagion concerns, we felt this would be a safe opportunity for a little change of scenery. We also looked forward to our long drive there through the rural countryside of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, so we could see what farmers were doing in those states.

As usual, there were plenty of preparations needed before departing on our little junket. One of our priorities was tidying up two areas where our critter-sitters would be feeding our cats, sheep and goats. I concentrated on the main barn’s former horse stable, while Dennis took on the challenges of the sheep barn’s feeding entry.

While I was away one afternoon before our departure, Dennis attacked the sheep barn’s feeding entry, where debris, like old feedbags, hay remnants and a scattering of hand tools, needed attention. It was probably a multi-day job, but by the time I returned home that evening, Dennis was sitting on the porch nursing aches and pains from over-exerting himself after getting the job done during several strenuous hours.

Although he took some painkillers at bedtime, expecting to feel better in the morning, he still had stiff joints when the next day dawned. He continued doses of acetaminophen, but unfortunately, as that day wore on, Dennis felt worse instead of improving. He developed a painful headache, his throat became sore and his muscles ached to the point it that it became difficult for him to walk. He also felt feverish and a check of his temperature showed a fever of 100.6 degrees.

We called his doctor’s office. It was a Saturday afternoon, so it was closed, but the on-call doctor listened to Dennis’ symptoms with the same concern that we had been feeling. He recommended that Dennis be tested for COVID-19.

That turned out to be easier said than done. It seemed that all local testing sites were closed until Monday, which was a long while away for someone feeling as bad as Dennis did. Finally, we located an urgent care center that was still open and didn’t require an appointment or a doctor’s referral. Dennis went there with trepidation about the discomfort allegedly involved with the test, but those fears proved to be unfounded.

We were told that his test results would take two to three days. There was nothing left to do in the meanwhile except continue regular doses of acetaminophen and call our friends to let them know we wouldn’t be joining them at the Outer Banks.

Dennis had a rough Saturday night and at one point, I contemplated taking him to an emergency room. Fortunately, by noon on Sunday, his fever was going down and he started “feeling more like himself.” His improvement continued and, by the end of the day, Dennis felt weak but otherwise functional. Nevertheless, we nervously awaited his COVID-19 test results.

The call came late Monday afternoon. Mercifully, he tested negative for COVID-19. By then, we realized the likeliest cause of his sudden severe illness was the dust he’d inhaled in the sheep barn — dust which almost certainly contained old rodent feces. As I had learned several years ago after cleaning mouse dirt from kitchen pantry shelves, rodent feces are loaded with contaminants that carry illness. In my case, I developed a scary bout of labyrinthitis.

In retrospect, Dennis wishes he had worn a mask during his sheep barn sweeping to prevent ingesting that harmful dust. Hindsight is 20-20, but hopefully his experience can serve as a lesson for someone else.

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Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.