From the editor: July-August 2015
When will we learn?
By Marg Land
I’d really wished not to have to write these words again. But, as my British-born grandfather always said, if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.
During the early part of July, two men – a father and son – died in Chippewa County, Wisc., while working near a manure pit.
According to reports, the father had descended a ladder into the pit to retrieve a wheel fallen from a manure conveyor. He apparently lost consciousness within the enclosed area. When his son went to rescue him, he too was overcome. And by the time local fire and emergency medical service was able to retrieve the pair, they were both dead.
This is not the first time I’ve read and reported on this kind of tragedy. It feels like just yesterday (it was actually July 2007) I wrote about the deaths of five people – a farmer, his hired hand, the farmer’s wife and two daughters, 11 and 9 – in an incident on a dairy operation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. A problem with a pipe transferring liquid manure from one pit to another prompted a 34-year-old farmer to try to fix it, something he had apparently done “hundreds of times” before. He never made it out. What followed was a chain reaction of well-intentioned rescue attempts resulting in debilitation and, ultimately, death. Two young children were left orphaned.
And the danger is not just limited to enclosed pits. In May 2012, a father and his two sons, 14 and 18, died while operating a manure agitator in a two million gallon open-air lagoon. The family ran a custom manure operation and had been “hauling manure for years” as well as managing a dairy farm. They never made it home for evening milking.
What exactly happened on the banks of the 20-foot deep lagoon isn’t known. But the official cause of death for all three was asphyxiation, according to Maryland state police.
I could list dozens and dozens of similar incidents, in the U.S., Canada, the UK and worldwide, all with the same tragic outcome. What makes them even more heartbreaking is the fact almost every one of the deaths was preventable.
For years, Penn State Extension has showcased its mobile Manure Storage Ventilation Demonstration trailer at the North American Manure Expo, educating farmers and custom manure applicators about the dangers of confined-space manure storages and the need for proper ventilation and, if required, supplemental oxygen. I’ve personally sat through the presentation three times, giggling along with the rest of the crowd as the little farmer doll does a face plant at the bottom of his model pit ladder, overcome by the fake toxic fumes.
In the harsh light of day, on the reality side of the plexiglass-fronted trailer, there’s nothing funny about it. It’s time we learned from these tragedies, stopped and considered our actions before we did them, thought of the possible consequences.
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, the need for a quick resolution to a problem. One of my coworkers – an intelligent, conscientious woman – related to me her own experience working on a dairy operation, regularly crawling down a ladder to apply the magic wrench strike to the engine of a cantankerous pit pump. Luckily, she always ascended unaffected. But all it takes is one instance, one time when the gas levels are higher, the ventilation not as plentiful. And lives are lost, all for the sake of a conveyor wheel or a stubborn leak.