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We’re not so good at reporting farm prevention

In keeping with the public’s growing interest in where food comes from and how it’s produced, maybe people also want to know something about farm safety lately…like, how farmers stay safe when they’re so often in harm’s way.

If you think it seems all you read about are farm tragedies, you’re right. Research out of the University of Alberta, using a media database maintained by the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA), showed that of the more than 850 publicly available news media reports of agricultural injuries and fatalities in Canada from 2010-17, only a little more than six per cent included a prevention message.

The study, released a little earlier this year then brought to light just last week by the University of Illinois Agricultural Communications Documentation Center, covered it all: fatal and non-fatal injuries, age and gender of those affected, urban and rural media, French and English, as well as whether they involved machinery.

“Prevention messages were more likely to occur when at least one child or female victim was involved in an event,” the study’s authors say. “Prevention messages are rare in media reporting of farm injuries and are decreasing over time. Improved reporting is needed to aid in farm injury prevention.”

It’s great to have the spotlight fall on this study this week, Canadian Agricultural Safety Week. It was launched Monday with a $1.4-million, two-year federal grant to CASA. A part of that money is supposed to go to awareness-raising activities. As well, it will be used for community engagement, and for developing and maintaining safety resources and tools to address existing and emerging safety needs provincially and nationally.

Good mental health is an important part of farm safety. “Farmers face a wide range of occupational stressors,” says University of Guelph Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton, a leading farm mental health researcher. “Some of those stressors have been around for centuries, like weather, a demanding workload and finances. The research we’ve done has also shown there are newer stresses.”

Indeed, she and her collaborator Dr. Briana Hagen have found the vilification of farming and agriculture has a big impact on farmers, as is what Jones-Bitton describes as “intense pressure from wanting to preserve the legacy of a family farm.”

Such distractions can make farming tougher than it already is. And being distracted around powerful machinery and livestock is not a recipe for safe farming.

Here’s why all this matters. In an average year, agricultural fatalities account for the deaths of over 100 adults and children in Canada. We live in an agriculturally intensive area, and unfortunately you may know someone who has been a casualty. In our area, where unintended occupational deaths are headlines not footnotes, farm safety really does affect everyone.

So back to the media not reporting on prevention. Indeed, it’s unlikely that in a story about a tragedy, a reporter would include what could seem like a gratuitous or unfeeling sentence about how it could have been prevented. That hesitancy is likely contributing to the Alberta research team’s woefully prevention-reporting low numbers.

And some prevention messages of a technical measure are better left to farm media, where you’d expect to find more specific farm news.

But that doesn’t exonerate anyone. I have three grandkids who are farm kids, and I know my daughter and son-in-law read their local weekly paper. That makes it a good venue for farm safety messages, perhaps with a less technical bent, like farm-related drive-safe tips.

In fact, we can all use such tips year-round, but especially in the spring when planting season arrives and machinery, producers and workers are seen more often on the roads.

And with that, I guess I just wrote about prevention.

Let’s keep farm safety in mind this week and beyond – respect slow-moving vehicles, drive cautiously up a lane for on-farm sales, and remember livestock are not pets.

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