Three-tenths of a second — less than a heart beat — is a fast human reaction time when triggered by an unexpected event. But as University of Missouri physical therapy students learned, it's not enough time to prevent a life-altering farm accident.

The lesson came while students studied the case of a Missouri farmer whose sleeve caught in an grain auger. In an instant, both her arms were amputated.

The students measured that ‘instant’ by testing their reaction speed using a digital timer. In three-tenths of a second a typical grain-moving auger operating at 1,000 revolutions per minute would pull a victim almost 3 feet.

“No one can react quickly enough to something like this or let go of a corn stalk that is suddenly pulled in by harvester feed rolls,” said Lara Ratliff, a member of a team of students looking at farm accidents.

Ratliff is unlike most physical therapy students who will graduate this May to begin careers in urban areas. Instead, Ratliff is returning to her rural hometown of Shelbyville, Mo.

Rural communities are under-served, often having no physical therapists available, or families must travel long distances to receive treatment, she said.

“So farm safety education is one of the most important things a physical therapist can do in rural areas,” she said. “You don't want to wait until after an accident happens.”

She plans on-farm visits to establish rapport with families and help them recognize hazard points of operating farm equipment.

Long hours of fieldwork and loss of sleep at key stress times such as calving or harvesting can slow a farm worker's reaction times or lead to carelessness, she said.

“There are many ways a physical therapist can go into a community to teach injury prevention,” said Karen Wingert, class instructor. “Education of the public is more and more in the frontline of our responsibility — not only to our patients and their families but also to the community.”

It's important, for example, that farm families know what resources are available to them.

One University of Missouri program that can help is AgrAbility, which works with farm families dealing with an injury or disability, including arthritis, said Karen Funkenbusch, program director and farm safety specialist. The federally-funded AgrAbility program offers services that might include modifying farm machinery, locating local support groups or making the farmhouse or other buildings more accessible.

Funkenbusch, with her expertise in the hazards of farming, is a regular in the MU physical therapy program. Students pursuing the degree spend the first two years in undergraduate work followed by a year of master's level study. Thirty-five students are set to graduate in May.

“There is a demand statewide for our graduates. The job market is very good right now,” said Wingert. “Everybody who wants a job will have one.”


Robert Thomas is an information specialist with Extension and Ag Information, University of Missouri (573-882-2480 or thomasr@missouri.edu).