[UPDATED: Oct. 8, 2019] Tim Hillier got up on stage in front of a conference of paramedics and bluntly told them, “My objective is to scare the crap out of you.
“These are very, very dangerous scenes. They’re dangerous for the patients… but they’re dangerous for you as responders as well,” Hillier said. “I don’t think we get enough training in this.”
He was talking about farm accidents.
Hillier gave a talk titled “Trauma, Country Style” at the Paramedics Across Canada Expo in Winnipeg on September 20.
Hillier has been a paramedic for 34 years and has taught classes on agricultural rescue and safety to paramedics since the early 1990s. He is the deputy chief of professional standards at Medavie Health in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, according to his LinkedIn page.
Many “city” paramedics don’t understand the risks associated with farms or why accidents occur there, Hillier told the Manitoba Co-operator prior to the event. Agricultural rescues have hazards they’re not accustomed to and sometimes require tools they don’t have.
Paramedics who respond to farm accidents may not be aware of the hazards involved, which puts them at risk of injury themselves.
“Depending on the stats, they say that farming is either five times more dangerous, eight times more dangerous, or, you know, ‘x’ times more dangerous than the average of all other industry combined,” Hillier told the crowd at the seminar. “But those are just numbers.”
Hillier used real stories from his career to illustrate these numbers, from chemical accidents to PTO entanglements.
He began by showing a picture of a tank, which appears to be smoking. It’s actually leaking anhydrous ammonia, he said.
“We should never come in contact with it,” Hillier said, explaining that the chemical will absorb any water it comes in contact with — like the moisture in a person’s lungs and eyes.
Hillier said one of his friends was injecting anhydrous ammonia one day and got a bunch of trash in the spreader. When the day was done, he crawled underneath to get the garbage out. There was no cloud or anything indicating the presence of ammonia.
“All of a sudden he started coughing and he couldn’t breathe,” Hillier said.
The farmer pushed out from under the applicator and ran away as far as he could before he collapsed. “He used to be able to run marathons, now he can’t walk down the block without being short of breath.”
Hillier also showed a video taken by the dash cam of a police officer in Illinois. The cop arrives at the scene of a crash between a small car and a truck pulling a tank trailer, which appears to be smoking. This is actually anhydrous ammonia leaking.
A person can be seen sprawled on the ground. The police officer runs over to help the person. Within seconds he begins to cough, picked up by his radio mike, and soon collapses.
Hillier urged the paramedics at the seminar to not rush into situations, but to assess the circumstances and ask questions. He cited the example of farmers in northeastern Saskatchewan who had sprayed malathion on their fields and later walked onto the field to check if it was working.
Malathion can absorb through leather boots, Hillier said. The farmers collapsed in the field.
“Have you ever been called to a heart attack, somebody laying down in the field? Do you ever think to yourself, ‘Why is he laying down in the field? Maybe it wasn’t a heart attack?’
“We have to be aware of this stuff,” Hillier said. “We could be laying down beside him.”
Hillier added that direct contact with chemicals isn’t the only way a farmer can be poisoned. Many lunches are brought to the field, he said, and possibly eaten without proper handwashing. The wind can blow chemicals, or it can transfer into clothing (like a hat) that is worn over and over, allowing the chemical to be absorbed by the skin.
In his second case study, Hillier told the story of three people who were electrocuted when the grain bin they were assembling came into contact with an overhead power line.
He told paramedics that they have to worry about scene safety in electrical accidents.
“I’ve literally been on scenes and people have told me ‘that line is dead. I’ve already stepped on it’ — which is not the way to check.”
Hillier said that when power lines go down, the system will reset itself and may be live again.
Some farms have operations that require power 24 hours a day, like dairy farms or hatcheries. These farms have generators, and if the system isn’t set up properly the electricity might feed back into the grid and energize the lines.
“So you can still be fried even after calling the power company,” Hillier said. “Now have I made your day?”
In another case study, Hillier showed pictures of modified equipment, like a combine with the “guts” of a sprayer mounted to it. A friend of his made the sprayer, but it had a flaw — the boom was on the front of the machine, which meant the driver was travelling through his own spray.
“They’re very ingenious people,” Hillier said of farmers. “But unfortunately some of the modifications come without safety features.”
Hillier showed the audience a picture showing the aftermath after a teenager was dragged into a machine which had been modified to chop square bales. It did not have proper safety guards.
Age can be a factor in farm injuries, Hillier said.
Young farmers or kids helping on the farm may feel invincible and be willing to take chances, Hillier said.
“I was that crazy person,” said Hillier, who grew up on a farm near Rivers. “I lived through a number of things that were very close to killing me when I was a young person on the farm.”
Young people are killed disproportionately, Hillier said, as well as those over 65, whose reflexes may be getting slower.
“He may have had unsafe habits his entire life, which carry on, which you can do when you’re 20… you can step over that spinning PTO shaft. When you’re 65 or 70, you might not lift your foot up quite as high.”
According to statistics from Canada Agricultural Industry Reporting (CAIR), the rate of farm fatalities for those between age zero and 14 was 4.7 per 100,000 farm population in 2012, the most recent year from which stats were available. For those between 15 and 59 the rate was 4.2 per 100,000 and the rate for those 60 and up was 22.2 per 100,000.
All age categories have seen a decrease in farm fatalities of between 0.8 and 1.1 per cent annually, however, the same report from CAIR showed that farm populations have also dropped steadily.
Economics drive accidents
During hard economic times, farm injuries go up, Tim Hillier told his seminar audience on September 20.
“You’re taking risks, you’re taking chances, you’re not doing proper maintenance, you’re not hiring extra help,” he said.
Hillier illustrated his point with a story about an older farmer in Saskatchewan who was using a post pounder in the field. He went to make an adjustment on the tractor and got his sleeve caught in the PTO, which wrapped him around it.
The farmer’s wife was with him and called for help, but there was no STARS then. By the time paramedics got there the farmer was in cardiac arrest. He was wrapped so tightly around the shaft that paramedics had to remove an arm to free the body from the PTO.
In this case, the farmer had replaced a missing pin on the shaft with a nail, which caught his clothing.
“That simple little nail, because he didn’t have time to go to town, he didn’t have time or money to get the proper piece of machinery… killed him.
“Little shortcuts that people take on a farm can kill you,” Hillier added.
A Danish study from 2006 concurs. It indicated that farm stressors, including “perceived economic problems” were predictors of occupational farm accidents.
A 2016 study of Irish dairy farmers said, “It’s possible for farmers to become embroiled in a negative spiral in which dysfunctional coping strategies, such as “cutting corners,” lead to accidents that further reduce the farmer’s ability to run the farm.”
*UPDATE: The article previously stated that the farmer in question was “spreading” anyhdrous ammonia on his field where what was meant was the proper term, “injecting.”