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The awful, essential detail of farm accidents

Most media have stopped reporting the details when a farm fatality happens — which makes future fatalities all the more likely

Media reports that call a farm death a freak accident and offer scant insight into what actually happened are increasingly becoming the norm.

It worries farm safety specialists. What sort of message does this send to farmers?

Use of the term “freak accident” is always cringe-worthy, for starters. A freak accident, by definition, is one that happened in a highly unusual situation, or occurred in circumstances no one had any control over. Yet, most injuries in agriculture happen in workplaces and on job sites very familiar to farmers, and incidents are almost always preventable if farm managers have taken steps to identify job site hazards and mitigate the risks they pose.

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That’s a message that’s been hammered home for years by farm safety groups.

But when a fatality occurs, media reports about it mainly focus on the age and gender of the victims and the location, and then simply say an investigation is pending. Reports also focus on other aspects not directly related to what happened, such as community support for the family affected.

A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Agromedicine looked at how media report agriculture injuries and fatalities, and it discovered a distinct decline in the quality of the reporting over the years.

The study analyzed 856 media reports published between 2010 and 2017 kept in a data base maintained by the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA).

The research examined reports in both print and online media in Canada for messages that actually promote safety among farmers — and just six per cent did so. Just 2.8 per cent really delved in any depth into what happened.

Nearly all the articles — 96 per cent — appeared in rural newspapers, and most in English language publications.

Yet there was a time when media did pay more attention to this important issue, says Don Voaklander, professor and director of the Injury Prevention Centre in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and one of the article’s authors.

A prior look at media reports from 2007 through 2009 found about one in four news articles conveyed some kind of prevention message with information on how farmers can reduce their own risks in similar circumstances.

The trend no doubt coincides with the decline in the media industry at large, Voaklander says. There are fewer news outlets with fewer reporters, a decline in print media, and more internet-based news.

“Newsrooms are running bare bones these days,” he says. “I would suspect it’s just a lack of resources to do any investigation. The story becomes trimmed at that point.”

The main concern, Voaklander says, is that these sparse stories are missed opportunities at teachable moments.

Examples of prevention messages might be to add some detail in the report about whether a rollover protection structure (ROPS) was in place in the event of a fatal tractor rollover, or if there was proper guarding on equipment if a person died in a machine-related incident, he says. “But there’s not as much interest in putting a safety message out there.”

Marcel Hacault, executive director with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association based in Winnipeg, says part of the problem can be the time lag between when an incident happens and when a full investigation is completed. Few details may be initially available to journalists trying to identify what happened for an immediate story.

Farm safety groups also want to be informed as soon as possible about what the investigations reveal so they can use that information for their ongoing awareness and communications work, Hacault says.

Despite few news reports carrying these prevention messages, they most certainly are being disseminated to the farm community in other ways, however. Commodity groups, farm organizations and many other agencies are now heavily invested in education and awareness, and they provide support and training for farmers for creating safer job sites.

There are also ongoing farm safety campaigns such as the annual Canadian Farm Safety Week in March with its focus on what farm owners can do to create safer workplaces.

The message is always out there that most injuries are predictable, and thus preventable if producers, farm managers and farm workers know what to look for and how to control the hazards, Hacault says.

In other words, no one in the farm community should still be using the term “freak accident.”

Deaths on the Canadian farm are on the decline, and farmers are creating safer worksites. There might have been a time when the general view was “farming is a risky business, you get hurt,” but a new generation of farmers thinks differently, says Hacault.

“A lot of attention has been paid to farm safety and I think it has been paying off in some regard,” agrees Voaklander.

Still, there were 843 agriculture-related fatalities in Canada between 2003 and 2012, or the equivalent of 11.5 fatalities per 100,000 farm population per year, with agricultural machinery responsible for the vast majority of injuries.

Plus, about four children continue to die every year from fatal injuries sustained on the farm, according to data compiled by Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting from 1990 to 2012.

The study did note that child deaths or incidents where the person involved is female get more media attention.

But the media need to do better, the experts says. Industry groups are helping, but media play an important role in creating the conversation on what needs changing and fixing to make farms safer to work on.

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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