By Delaney Seiferling
Jaco Poot remembers the evening of July 29, 2011 like it was yesterday.
It was a Friday evening, after dinner, and as a hog producer in Bloomsbury, Alberta, his workday was, as usual, not finished.
As his wife and daughter headed into town, he went back outside to his farm to check how full his feed bins were, as he was expecting a delivery the next day.
It was a stressful time, said Poot, who moved to Alberta with his wife from the Netherlands in 1996 to fulfill his dream of owning a hog farm. He was understaffed and grappling with the economic ups and downs that have long been a feature of the hog industry. Because of this, he was trying to cut corners and do as much as he could on the farm by himself.
“Being kind of a go-getter, I climbed the bin there with one hand on the ladder and the other hand knocking on the bin, so you can hear how full the bin is, what the grain level is,” said Poot.
Focused on moving quickly, he misjudged where the top of the 18-foot-tall bin ladder was.
“I mis-grabbed, and bang, I was down on the ground again.”
After that, things were a bit hazy. He thinks he remained on the ground, unconscious, for about an hour before beginning to drift in and out of consciousness.
“Every time I came kind of back to the world, it hurt like hell. I wanted to be back to being passed out,” he said. “At the moment, of course, I didn’t know what was going on, but I was paralyzed.”
As he slowly started becoming aware of what had happened, he realized he needed help but didn’t think to try to locate his cell phone to call his son, who was in the house. Eventually, he somehow dragged his injured body back to the farmyard.
“I was laying on my belly, vomiting, crawling through my own vomit. It was so gross.”
He later learned that he had lost his phone somewhere along the way and that his son eventually found him, unconscious again, and raced him to the closest hospital, in Barrhead.
There, the nurses noticed right away that there was something seriously wrong with his neck and back.
“Somehow, they managed to get me on a stretcher, and they shipped me off to the hospital in Edmonton,” he said.
There, several MRI scans confirmed he had suffered five cracked and broken vertebrae, two in his neck and three in his centre back. He also had a minimal crack in his skull, and a concussion.
Despite this long list of injuries, there was also some good news – he started to get some sensation back in his toes.
“It was a good sign,” he said. “It was just basically from shock that that all feeling was gone.”
He remained in the hospital for observation for several more days, and the medical team confirmed that the vertebrae were cracked but, thankfully, not damaged further.
“I had movement in my toes, my feet, and I was able to stand again.”
Eventually, he was sent home with a cast on his neck and chest and a warning to stay in bed for eight weeks.
“And that’s what I did,” he said, adding that those eight weeks presented a whole new type of challenge.
“I remember those eight weeks, especially the last couple of weeks, they were worse than the accident, mentally. I’m kind of a physical guy, I want to get going.”
In the end, he made a full recovery and is extremely grateful. But he admits that, in retrospect, he feels foolish for taking such major risks to save time.
“This whole accident is because I was just dumb, too much in a hurry,” he said, adding that, at the time of the accident, he was under more stress than usual.
“I took on more on the farm than I actually could handle, labour-wise.”
He believes that many farmers share the same attitude when it comes to facing challenges such as these.
“You keep going and you keep going and you keep going,” he said. “The workload you take on as one person is about double what you would do as hired person. So, you make it a habit of working 80 hours a week, and you start paying the price for that after a while because you become kind of blind for danger, you become overly tired.”
This message should be taken to heart by everyone who works in agriculture, said AgSafe Alberta executive director Jody Wacowich. Poot’s story is a perfect example of how easily things can go wrong, and what the major risk factors are at this time of year, including the stress and ensuing fatigue that can come with busy times.
“The number of farm accidents and fatalities peaks during busy, stressful times on farms,” said Wacowich.
A tired worker is three times more likely to have an on-farm accident, and that tiredness is four times more likely to cause impairment than drugs or alcohol. Studies also show that 20 per cent of all vehicle fatalities can be attributed to fatigue.
Poot’s story also highlights the dangers that come with working alone.
“A shocking 50 per cent of farm accidents occur when the victim is working alone and is rendered in a position where they can’t call for help,” said Wacowich.
She encourages farmers and ranchers to mitigate risks by identifying work-alone situations in their operations and what measures can be taken to address the hazards.
Finally, the third risk factor highlighted in Poot’s case is the dangers associated with working from heights on farms. In 2011, two farmers in Alberta were killed as a result of falling from grain bins.
“As grain bins are getting bigger, some up to 60-feet high, these risks increase, although even a fall from 10 feet can be fatal or critical,” said Wacowich.
As a best practice, farmers and ranchers should endeavour to have fall protection measures in place when workers are at risk of falling from three metres or higher. Wacowich also urges farmers to take further safety precautions by consulting the many free resources AgSafe Alberta has made available to farmers and ranchers in the province.
“We’ve spent a lot of time identifying the most common hazards farmers and ranchers face throughout the year, and there are simple and effective ways to address these risks,” she said, adding this information is all available on AgSafe Alberta’s website.
“It’s just a matter of planning ahead and making sure these safety programs are in place before an incident happens, so everyone can go home at the end of the day,” she said.
In the meantime, Poot has a simple safety message for farmers: “Just slow down. Use your head, count to 10.”
He has adopted this mentality on his own farm and will continue to share his story with other farmers in the hopes that it might prevent another injury or even a fatality.
“When you’re in bed after the accident, you realize what life is worth as far as family and values, and this farm that is so important to you, it’s actually not,” he said. “But it takes an accident to realize it, and that’s the sad part.”