After 'quite a few injuries,' North Dakota hires a farm safety coordinator
NDSU’s extension office hasn’t had a farm safety coordinator since 2005.
FARGO — When Angie Johnson drives the 50 miles to work every morning, she thinks.
She remembers the worry she felt when family members were injured while growing up on a Galesburg, North Dakota, ranch. She calculates what the stressful combination of COVID-19, politics, low commodity prices and problematic weather might bring to rural North Dakotans.
As the long-awaited and newly-hired farm and ranch safety coordinator for North Dakota State University Extension Services, Johnson aims to send farmers and ranchers a message to “slow down and take the time to teach,” she said from her office, wearing her NDSU hat and sweatshirt for game day.
While the idea of slowing down is foreign to most farmers and ranchers come harvest or planting seasons, the concept can save lives, she said.
NDSU’s extension office hasn’t had a farm safety coordinator since 2005, said extension director Lynette Flage.
“Extension has been requesting assistance with farm safety for quite some time,” Flage said. Repeatedly, the department approached the state’s Legislature with requests, but they were turned down until in 2021, when the coronavirus pandemic added unseen stressors to rural residents.
Two years ago, Charlie Stoltenow, a professor and assistant director of Extension Services, described the situation as a “ perfect storm ,” when the trade war, a late and wet planting season and low commodity prices came together to form a “crucible of stress” for farmers and ranchers.
Those ingredients grew more stressful when COVID-19 became an additional worry.
“It seemed there were more and more headlines regarding agriculture, and more work related accidents,” Flage said. “As COVID came back there was a lot more stress, there were low commodity prices through trade wars, and when farmers or ranchers are feeling those stresses it is easier not to follow the safety protocols.”
With their arguments for assistance in hand, extension representatives went once again to the Legislature in 2021, and although they didn't get everything they wanted, they got enough to begin the full-time program again.
“We pushed hard that we really needed someone to specialize this work, and Angie was doing it part time, and now really is able to do this full time for us,” Flage said.
In total, the Legislature approved $240,000 per biennium, or $120,000 operating support per year for Extension Services safety program, which will cover salaries, benefits, and all the operating support Johnson needs for her research and education across 53 extension systems, Flage said.
Recording farm injuries is difficult because family-owned ranches do not have to report incidents to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Johnson said. Many times she has to research newspapers or social media platforms to find out about a farm accident.
Since 2012, however, Johnson’s records indicate that there have been 122 agricultural fatalities and injuries in North Dakota, with tractor rollovers as the deadliest type of farm accident.
In 2020, North Dakota had one of the most highly documented confined space and grain entrapment accident rates in the nation with a total of seven cases, on par with Minnesota, but below Illinois, which had 17 cases, according to a study by Purdue’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program.
“It took quite a few injuries for the Legislature to get to the point of saying ‘Yes, we need this,’” Johnson said.
Managing the full-time job and the cattle she still has on her ranch is a balancing act, she said.
“I couldn’t do it without my family. When we are lambing and calving it does get hectic, but my work on the farm is my therapy,” said Johnson, 29. “And what I love about it is that it gives me perspective to see what the people I serve go through.”
Using the cowboy doll Woody from the cartoon movie “Toy Story,” Johnson demonstrated how dangerous grain bins can be. In a matter of seconds, Woody disappeared under the dried corn.
Another tool on her desk offered a warning that loose clothing can become entangled quickly in complicated farm machinery.
Such examples are only two of the safety issues she’s trying to make farmers and ranchers aware of across the state, but sometimes the difference between life and death can be as simple as the hazard sign that hangs on a whiteboard in her office.
Hired in October, Johnson is focusing on working with youth on farms and putting training programs in place, quickly too, because there is also a severe shortage of seasonal workers in North Dakota, she said.
“Safety should always be priority one,” Johnson said. “People value safety, but when it’s a challenge because until a bad experience happens, we assume we’re safe. I look at it as ‘How do we change behavior?’ And that’s tough.”