Mobile Press Register


Things have changed down on the farm.

While a productive farm today still requires such basics as sun and rain, fertile soil, seeds for planting, and hard-working hands to care for what nature turns out, technology continues to make advances in the farming industry in a cost productive effort.

Highly specialized forage harvesters, corn headers and the like have given today's farmer a time and work-saving alternative to manual labor.

But are the changes actually taking farmers a step forward ... or a step backward?

Farming is said to be the most hazardous occupation in the United States. More dangerous than construction work, more dangerous than work as a police officer or work on an oil rig. Farming is indisputably dangerous business.

On an annual basis, 6,400 people die and 570,000 are disabled on America's farms.

In fact, the death rate for farm residents is three times that in industrial work places.

Jack Dorland at McMillian & Harrison Fertilizer Company in Grand Bay said, "I bet you couldn't find a dairy man in this country who hasn't lost some fingers. The men are in a hurry to get the job done. Farmers have no time to move slowly because time is money for them, too. And that's when accidents happen."

"Lots of help on farms is temporary too," Dorland continued, "and on a farm there is no such thing as safety training."

Grady Dunn of Wilmer is one of many farmers who has experienced a serious accident on his farm.

Although his was the first serious accident in a lifetime of farming, Dunn nevertheless lost three of his fingers several years ago while trying to flip a fodder caught in a sprocket of a forage harvester.

"If I had learned that if I let the machine run, that you can flip one (corn) stalk and it will free what's caught. And I've done it many times before but this time it didn't work. I reached in and the chains just pinched my fingers off before I knew what happened."

Dunn said accidents aren't an uncommon happening to people of all ages.

"On a farm," he began, "I don't think there is anything more fun for a child to do than take a ride on a tractor. A tractor ride is something a child will never forget. It's special, and you can see the children playing on the huge machines all the time. And just as soon as a bump comes along, off they go, and there is no telling what their injuries will be."

"A farm is full of potential dangers."

In an article published in Lawyers Desk Reference, Harry Philo says one of the reasons so many accidents occur is that, "most farm machines fail to incorporate elementary principles of safe design, which were accepted long ago in other types of industrial machinery."

In April, a jury awarded $10,580,000 to farmer John Jacob McMillian of Perdue Hill, Ala., after he lost his leg in an unguarded corn header. Local attorney James A. Yance of Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder and Brown, who, with Richard Bounds, brought an action in McMillian's behalf against the equipment company, Massey-Ferguson, "alleging negligent design, strict liability under Alabama's Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine, and willful and wanton misconduct."

According to an article in Law Reporter, the accident occurred in September 1981, one morning when McMillian was having problems with "pig weed" that grew up alongside the cornstalks. The pig weed would fall back over the trough of the combine's auger, which carried the corn from the corn head to the throat of the combine, blocking the passage.

McMillian stopped the combine to shove the blockage of pig weed into the auger, when suddenly the auger grappled the stalks of pig weed that he was standing on and jerked his legs out from under him.

He fell on top of the rotating auger, which chewed up his left leg until the mechanism jammed and the slipping drive belts burned off. For nearly eight hours, he battled against the auger's grip.

The article reports that McMillian smashed his head against the machine in an effort to knock himself unconscious. McMillian's children had called neighbors who found him at 5 p.m. and used a cutting torch to extract him. Doctors were forced to perform several amputations of the leg that ultimately left McMillian with about 5 inches of stump.

Yance contended that the machine should have been equipped with a barrier guard, and learned that Massey-Ferguson's first corn header, manufactured in 1958, featured a closed auger with a cover that provided some measure of protection for the operator. Similar closed designs were used by most other manufacturers of similar machines.

In 1960, the company introduced the open auger design, and in the course of the next 15 years, every major manufacturer of corn headers followed suit.

The article reports that Yance discussed the case with other lawyers around the country who felt that this industry-wide conformity to the open-auger design would be a major stumbling block in the case. But in Yance's view, the burden was on the other side. He asked what justified an industry already lagging in safety to take a major step backward in operator protection.

It was stated that a guard would cost $200, and since Massey-Ferguson manufactured 100,000 corn headers over the years, it saved at least $20 million. The other major manufacturers eventually adopted the same unsafe design for no other reason than to remain competitive in price.

Yance brought to light the company's elimination of an existing protective device which forced the entire industry to take a step backward in safety, all for the sake of profits.

"Other industries have safety training sections and standards," Dunn added, "but we don't have one on my farm. The farm is a dangerous place."


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