Randy Froese never thought it would happen to him.
But on August 17, 2010, he very nearly became another grim farm death statistic.
“It was a miracle,” he said. “I praise the Lord every day that it happened the way it did… it was so close.”
That fateful day started much like any other, as Froese and farm employee Eddie Fehr began dislodging 1,200 bushels of pinto beans from inside a bin on his family farm near Winkler. Beans had welded to the walls of the bin since going into storage the previous fall, refusing to budge even as the rest of the product was removed.
The pair went into the bin and began scraping the beans off the walls with tools. For the first few hours work was uneventful, said Froese, speaking to the Manitoba Farm Writers and Broadcasters Association about his experience recently.
Then the avalanche happened.
“I saw a piece starting to break away, and I said to Eddie, ‘Look out it’s coming,’” he said. “I tried getting myself around to the other side of the aeration… as I went across, my foot got swept out from underneath me and I ended up sitting down with the stand-on wrapped around my leg, and the whole bottom slid off and about a third of the wall of beans went with it.”
Buried from head to toe in rancid beans, Froese said his life truly flashed before him as he thought about his wife and young children. Luckily, his co-worker had only been buried up to his waist and was able to free himself then dig out Froese’s head.
“That first breath of mouldy air was wonderful,” he said.
It would be another 45 minutes before he was out of the bin, as his father and other employees struggled to extricate him.
“It was chaos,” said Froese, adding that 911 calls from the farm had been rerouted to Brandon causing confusion. Even when first responders arrived, they didn’t have the equipment or training needed for such an enclosed-space rescue.
Since the pulse farmer recovered injuries that included a dislocated knee and toxic-crush syndrome, he has been on a mission to help other producers and first responders learn from his brush with death.
Glen Blahey of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association said it’s crucial that producers and the public don’t view farm deaths and injuries like the ones Froese sustained as “freak accidents.”
“The scenarios are all the same and the common denominator in all of them is, ‘I never thought it would happen to me.’ So getting that message out really is a critical part and the lessons learned are most critical,” said Blahey, adding that he has heard dozens of similar stories over the years.
Canadian Agricultural Safety Association data shows that between 1990 and 2013, 1,102 farm operators were killed on the farm. During that same period, 308 children also died in farm incidents. That is in addition to a substantial number of visitors and employees who died while engaged in farm activities.
“That doesn’t sound freak to me,” Blahey said.
More troubling is that over that same period there was no decrease in the number of farm fatalities, except when it came to rollover deaths, which the safety expert attributed to improved equipment engineering, not a change in operator behaviour. The number of deaths resulting from victims being pinned or struck by equipment actually increased during the same period.
Part of the problem is that on-farm death and injury isn’t treated in the same way as industrial accidents on construction sites or in factories by the police and media.
“When an agricultural incident occurs, where someone is seriously injured or dies, what’s the first message? It was a freak accident. And that freak accident descriptor is multiplied,” said Blahey, adding that accidents are unpredictable and unpreventable, while on-farm deaths are not.
Then, rather than using these occurrences as teachable moments, media coverage generally focuses on how a grieving community comes together to overcome adversity by bringing in the harvest, he said.
“I’m not talking about blaming people here, I’m saying we have to take a critical look at what happened and what can be done differently,” Blahey said, adding that farm deaths rarely result in a call to action the way a car crash on a dangerous curve might.
For his part, Froese said he has gone over the events of 2010 many times, thinking about where things went wrong.
“Today, no doubt, I would have done it differently,” said Froese, adding local fire departments are also ready to do things differently, having learned valuable lessons after his entrapment.
“I thank the fire department for what it did, they came not knowing what they were getting themselves into and since my accident, Wentworth Ag has donated a unit, it comes in pieces, that they can actually put around a person and excavate product,” he said, adding that while he hopes it never happens again, it’s a relief to me that responders are prepared if it does.
“That’s why I like to share my story. I was the person who said it wasn’t going to happen to me, but it can happen to anybody.”