BATON ROUGE, La. — Farm safety still needs to be on the minds of farmers and farm workers even during the winter months between harvest and planting, according to agents and specialists with the LSU AgCenter.

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show thousands of farm workers are injured and hundreds more die each year in farming accidents.

LSU AgCenter safety specialist David Bankston said those who work in agriculture must remember there is danger and that being extremely alert and cautious are critical elements in avoiding accidents.

"When you’re working around equipment as dangerous as this, you have to pay attention to what’s going on and watch out for the people around you," Bankston said at a meeting to stress safety to farmers. "One of the most important things to remember in farm safety is to keep your cool."

Bankston said proper maintenance of equipment also is important, and he stressed making sure rollover protection structures are included on farm equipment — particularly tractors.

The Centers for Disease Control’s census by region and age group for the years from 1986 through 1996 shows that the South leads the nation in fatal farm injuries from the age group less than 20 years of age. The Southern region recorded 863 fatal farm injuries during that time frame, followed by the Midwest with 844.

The causes of fatal farm injuries for this age group during that period were led by 773 (35.6 percent) caused by machinery. Another 585 (26.9 percent) were the result of drowning.

The CDC report states that progress in the reduction of farm injuries and fatalities is attributed to more widespread use of rollover protection structures, also known as ROPS, improved emergency care in rural areas, certification of youth 14 to 15 years of age in the operation of farm machinery and general educational efforts toward farm safety.

But safety experts say it’s important to note that not all tractor cabs actually qualify as rollover protection structures. The National Farm Medicine Center stresses that many older cabs don’t provide rollover protection and that some of the newer ones are just for weather and chemical protection.

Tractor rollovers are the most common cause of fatal farm injuries, according to the National Safety Council. It estimates the annual death rate from rollovers in the United States is 5.4 per 100,000 tractors.

LSU AgCenter county agent Jimmy Flanagan, who tries to hold an annual farm safety educational meeting for agricultural producers in his area, says it’s important for farmers to make farm safety information available to themselves, their families and their employees.

Farmers who attend the meetings have fewer on-farm accidents, Flanagan said. "Here in St. Mary Parish, we’ve had safety meetings since the mid-1980s and have had only four fatalities, while some of our neighboring parishes without meetings have had as many as 17 fatalities during the same period."

Gary Luke, owner of Baker Plantation in St. Mary Parish, said safety meetings on the farm are very worthwhile for his operation.

"I have safety meetings on my farm several times per year, especially when there is a change in weather," Luke said.

Luke, who farms 1,000 acres of cane and had a fatality the first year he farmed nearly 30 years ago, said he now sees that these meetings also help to lower his liability insurance and workers’ compensation costs and helps to avoid lawsuits.

Dick Beyer, Louisiana Farm Bureau safety director, said that tractors are a big factor in farm injuries and death. "Since 1974 there have been 203 farm fatalities in Louisiana involving tractors," Beyer said, stressing that while there are some farm safety meetings held around the state, he doesn’t think there are nearly enough of them.

Beyer has been collecting clippings of farm fatalities for the past 30 years, and he brings his book of clippings to all of the safety meetings that he attends around the state to let the farmers and workers see the numbers. "I always tell the participants that this is one book that you don’t want to be in," he said.

Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Bob Odom said he applauds the LSU AgCenter’s information and education effort to reach out to the farm community on the issue of farm safety.

"It is an issue that if we don’t remind one another of occasionally, we tend to get lax," Odom said. "When we stop paying attention to the hazards farm equipment and farming situations can cause, we are asking for trouble for ourselves and our families."

For additional information on farm safety or information on how to set up a farm safety meeting in your parish, contact your local LSU AgCenter Extension office. Or for general information about the variety of programs offered by the LSU AgCenter, visit www.lsuagcenter.com.

Johnny Morgan (225-578-8484 or jmorgan@agcenter.lsu.edu) writes for the LSU AgCenter.