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Safety First

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Students learn invaluable tips on how to be safe
Jim Johnson
Jim Johnson, soils and crops consultant, discusses the dos and don'ts of tractor and equipment safety.
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Robert Wells does not usually talk about his 8th birthday. But with a dozen sets of eyes trained on him during the Noble Research Institute's 5th Annual Ag Safety Day, Wells detailed his most painful childhood memory.

The Wells family had a tradition that each person was given a reprieve from daily chores on his or her birthday. But as Wells watched his sister mow, guilt drove the diligent youth to reassume the duties. When the mower bogged down in a ditch, Wells clicked off the engine and went to haul it out. The engine unexpectedly kicked on, bounced and mauled his left foot.

Wells spent that summer in the hospital, undergoing six surgeries and two skin grafts. He underwent intense physical therapy, learned to walk again and ultimately forfeited his dream of pursuing athletics. Most of all, Wells grew embarrassed about his scars, hiding his maimed foot.

Thirty-two years later, the towering livestock consultant stood at the lawn station at the Noble Research Institute Ag Safety Day, the local embodiment of a national initiative designed to teach safety to children in agricultural settings. "It's as important as breathing," said Wells, Ph.D. "If you're going to be around agriculture, you must learn to respect it and understand the hazards."

Wells' story is all too common for youth working in agricultural-related fields. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks agriculture among the most hazardous industries for adults and youth. More than 16,000 youth (ages 20 years and younger) are injured on the farm each year with about 110 fatalities.

The Progressive Agriculture Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting agricultural safety, trains organizations and schools to host safety day events. There are more than 400 such events in North America, and the Noble Research Institute's serves south-central Oklahoma. This year, more than 180 eighth graders experienced a mix of education, interaction and entertainment. Students learned chemical safety from David Annis, soils and crops consultant, through a relay race with personal protection equipment.

At the electricity safety station, students watched with wide eyes as Danny Coffey from Oklahoma Gas and Electric discussed the power of electrical currents by using a machine that emits a blue arc of light and a zap of energy.

Jim Johnson, soils and crops consultant, discussed tractor and equipment safety, and then used a front end loader to squash a watermelon to demonstrate the power of the machine. Students also learned water safety from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and weather safety from regional meteorologist Cathy Evans. "Each station has a message," said James Rutledge, safety coordinator at the Noble Research Institute. "The students learn about topics ranging from chemical to lawn mower safety then we use a game or a visual element to seal that memory with them."

Most of the students represent regional schools where agriculture is an everyday component of their life. "They need to know this information," said Nolona Chaney, who has taught for 35 years. "But it's delivered in such a way the students don't even realize they are learning because they are having so much fun."

Cassandra Harwell, 11, certainly understood the value of the lessons. A few months before the Safety Day, Cassandra was in a school bus that had a power line fall on it. "We didn't know what to do," Cassandra said. "But I do now because of today."

That knowledge is translating into results. A 2010 survey by the USDA showed that injuries among youth on farms had declined by 60 percent since 1998. The survey cited safety days across the nation as a contributing factor to the decrease.

As the day ended, the event's grand finale was the classic student activity - the egg drop. Each class designed a contraption to keep their egg safe. Boxes coated with tape and bubble wrap were all loaded into the bucket ladder of an Ardmore Fire Department fire truck. The ladder stretched 40 feet into the air like a mechanical brontosaurus neck unfolding.

The firefighter called out the school's name followed by a countdown...3...2...1. Whoosh. The boxes slipped one by one through the air, hitting the concrete parking lot below; the louder the thud, the louder the corresponding "oooo" from the crowd. Once each box settled, students rushed in to see if their design had been successful.

Noah Lemons from Ms. Donna Jackson's 5th grade class in Marietta, Okla., pried open his container, a gaggle of boys pushing to peer in. Noah scooped out the untarnished egg and declared, "He's alive. He's alive!"

And at Ag Safety Day, that's what it's all about.