It was mostly operator error, as most farm accidents are, Chip Petrea says of a mishap that changed his life forever.
“I was pushing some hay through a bailer with my feet,” he says. “It worked, but I applied enough pressure that the bailer sucked my feet in along with the hay.”
Amazingly, Petrea, a native Illinoisan who grew up helping on his family’s dairy farm, continued to farm for eight more years after the accident cost him the use of his legs. He quickly learned to rely on his hands to help his family complete common farm tasks.
“Not all the equipment I used was modified,” he says. “Common tractor modifications include a lift for access to the cab and a hand control on the dump valve for transmission. I also used my hands to activate remote cylinders or power-take-off.”
Fulfilling career aspirations ultimately caused him to leave the farm. Petrea went back to school and now leads agriculture research at the University of Illinois. Helping others avoid accidents has become his life’s work.
“My studies led me to psychological models related to behaviors. I was focused on what they might tell me about why some get hurt on the farm and others do not.”
When Petrea realized he could offer farmers a unique perspective to farm safety, he began leading farm safety presentations.
“My presentations rarely share the do’s and don’ts of farm safety because they have been preached for years and years,” says Petrea. “I prefer to share my story and talk about behaviors and how we think – how our behaviors can be distorted when we are stressed.”
He urges farmers to remember that they can avoid future accidents by remembering history is not a good predictor of what can happen in the future.
“We [disabled farmers] all have the same story,” he says. “And whenever people say ‘oh, he wasn’t thinking,’ well, in most instances, maybe that is what the person tells you, but they were thinking – they just weren’t thinking about getting hurt.”
Petrea is not afraid to admit the errors that led to his accident if it makes a difference in others’ lives.
“I’ve had several of the older farmers say they’ve attended farm-safety presentations for 30 years and never heard anything like what I share,” says Petrea. “If it makes a difference, then I know I am doing my job.”