Dennis J. Murphy

Professor of Agricultural Safety and Health, College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State University

Biographical Sketch
Dennis Murphy runs a statewide program in agricultural safety and health. He conducts research on modifying farm safety behaviors, and developing safer equipment and farm structures. He also provides outreach through demonstrations, lectures and presentations. He grew up on a farm in central Illinois and earned a B.S. in general agriculture and M.S. in occupational safety and health at Illinois State University. He earned a PhD in agricultural education at Penn State University.

Presentation Summary
Agriculture is the number one industry in Pennsylvania from an economic standpoint and unfortunately it’s also number one from another standpoint — it’s the most dangerous. The rate at which farm people are killed is high and includes a lot of children. For over 20 years mining and agriculture have been the two most dangerous occupations in the state. Mining kills between 20 and 30 people in the nation a year whereas agriculture kills 600 to 700 people. For every fatality we have in agriculture there is another 10 to 12 injuries. Of those, two or three will be permanently disabling.

In my work, we dedicate what resources we have toward farm safety efforts, putting on demonstrations designed to impress upon people how dangerous farming is and educating them so they are more safety conscious. However, the resources invested in agriculture safety are nowhere near what mining or construction has. Since the 1940s machinery has been the biggest area of danger on the farm. More farm people are killed by tractors than any other piece of equipment. That’s followed by machines such as harvesters that take in crop material, chop and process it in a variety of ways. Every year, farmers get their arms, legs and other parts of their body entangled in these machines.

The power take-off is the spinning shaft that transfers power from the tractor back to the machine hitched to it. It is highly dangerous because it spins so fast. When clothing becomes entangled in it, the occupant of that clothing often goes with it, resulting death, severe injury or dismemberment. Early on, I decided that rather than going around talking about the danger of the power take-off, we should build a demonstration model in which farmers can test their agility.

I have this simulation model here today and as you can see our volunteer from the audience has his arm in this Velcro cuff. The shaft is spinning at 900 revolutions per minute. When she feels the tug from the spinning shaft, she will pull her arm away as fast as possible. (Volunteer jerks arm away.) As you can see the simulator shows that our volunteer took two tenths of a second to react. With 900 revolutions of the shaft per minute, 62 inches of his arm would have already been wrapped in the shaft. Since his arms aren’t that long it’s reasonable to conclude his whole body would have been involved with the shaft if this were a real farm situation.

Over the last five years in Pennsylvania we have averaged 27 farm people killed per year through farm accidents. That’s better than it used to be. In the 1970’s we were losing more than 50 farm people per year. When we break it down by age we find that the highest mortality from accidents is children under 5 years old. The next highest age group is farmers over 80 years old. Farmers in this age group don’t see as well, hear as well or react as well.

There are unique aspects of farming compared to other work sites such as construction. Farmers usually live at the work site so they and their families are there all the time. This increases the odds that accidents will happen. There is far less oversight of the safety aspects of the farm compared to other work sites that must adhere to government safety regulations. Smaller farms are exempt from most of these regulations. In 1976 Congress funded a farm safety specialist at a land grant university in every state. Since then the funding has not increased and most states let their specialists go. I am the only one left in the Northeastern U.S. In order to obtain funding for projects, I must raise it myself through writing grants and other activities.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states with a farm safety and health act. The legislation needs to be updated but it does provide $110,000 a year to fund farm safety programs such as mine. While this funding is welcome, it pales in comparison to what other industries spend on safety. Our state and our country needs to devote more resources to keeping farmers alive.

In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.