At the passing of my grandmother Ruth Moore at the age of 92 several weeks ago, our family got together to help settle her estate and to clean out her house. At the end of that trip, I was tasked with the assignment of going through hundreds of family pictures dating to the late 1800s to electronically record them into picture files for the rest of the family.
After sifting through six generations of photographs, it occurred to me what a difficult life that my great=grandparents and grandparents lived. I was the first generation in my family not raised on a farm, although my father did eventually move out to a little hobby farm on Russell Cave Road in Fayette County, and he still got plenty of work out of me in return for free tuition with room and board while I was in college. But even at that, it’s still difficult for me to fathom such hardship and a life without the conveniences of today.
Back in the day, farming families broke and tamed the land with their blood, sweat, tears and even body parts. My father and his siblings all worked harder and longer before the start of one school day than most people do today in one full week.
My father’s day began with feeding the dairy cattle, pigs and chickens, breaking ice on the pond in subzero weather, milking the cows and then taking the milk into town and back, which left him just enough time to clean up a bit before riding the bus into school.
After school, my father had to rush home to work tobacco fields, cut, bail and haul hay, work the garden, repair fencing, tend to the cattle, etc. Once the sun went down he would settle into homework before heading off to bed just to get up and do it all over again the next day.
If he was lucky he would get a bath about once a week, where clean water was a luxury if you were the oldest. Ice was a treat in the summer months, and on cold winter night he would grab a pan of hot coals to place under your bed to warm things up before you went to sleep.
The second industrial revolution, after the turn of the century, enabled farmers to produce greater yields with fewer man-hours, but it also seized a lot of fingers, hands and lives along the way.
My family had its share of farm accidents and injuries, as I had a great-grandfather who lived through the Civil War only to later lose a leg and then, a few days later, his life to a logging accident. My grandfather lost an eye as a boy to a tree limb, and my grandmother lost three of her fingers inside a corn shredder. The fact that my great-grandfather lived to the age of 77 and my grandfather at the age of 94, with all his limbs in tact is a small miracle in itself.
Farming is one of the few industries in which families often live and work on the same premises, which means the entire family is in constantly at risk for injuries, illness and death. Even today, farming ranks as one the most dangerous occupations in the United States.
When I assess the risks and exposures, they are almost countless – exposure to pesticides, chemicals and gases from manure, working in confined spaces, noise-induced hearing loss, moving machinery, skin cancer from working out in the sun all day, severe weather including lightning strikes, heat stroke and hypothermia and getting kicked or gored by your livestock.
What’s amazing to me is that my grandfather worked in such a dangerous occupation without the safety net of a mandated state worker’s compensation program now available. But even today, if farmers become disabled due a workplace injury, many have to rely on extended family members or neighboring farmers to assist while they are on the mend, or they simply lose the farm to bankruptcy, as few have a disability insurance policy.
In 2010, 476 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury, resulting in a fatality rate of 26.1 deaths per 100,000 workers, many of whom are teenagers. In 2009, an estimated 16,100 youth were injured on farms; 3,400 of these injuries were due to farm work. Every day, about 243 agricultural workers suffer a lost-work-time injury and about 5 percent of these injuries result in permanent impairment.
The fact that farmers often work alone in isolated rural areas adds to the risk of a fatality. As many become entrapped, entangled or disabled for hours before they are discovered.
As the number of U.S. farms has dwindled, the average age of farmers continues to rise above the age of 55, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Farmers seldom retire at age 65 like we all hope to, and many will work well into their 70s, making them ever more prone to a farm accident.
It occurred to me as I was looking over my family photos, that my grandfather was one of the lucky ones, as he was able to live out his entire life working on a family farm well into his 70s without a severe injury.
But that was because he was never much of a risk-taker, especially after living through the Great Depression.
Even later, he still had years’ worth of canned food stored up in his basement dating back to ’80s and ’90s. (He was also known for picking up a bent nail while walking down the street and putting it in his pocket and straightening it for later use.)
My grandfather and his generation of farmers were amazing, in an era when life was much more difficult. Making a living was not easy and they had to learn to safely be able to cultivate and live off the land, at the risk of severe injury every single day.
Over time my grandparents quickly learned that good judgment came from experience, and experience -well, that came from poor judgment – and luckily they were able to grow old and grey well into retirement.
Be safe, my friends.
(All photos from the Moore family)
Keven Moore is director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance (www.roedinginsurance.com). He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at email@example.com.
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