By Lt. Col. Keith Felter, 459th Airlift Squadron Commander
/ Published August 06, 2008
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan --
When I was told last year that I had been hired to be the chief of safety for the 374th Airlift Wing, two thoughts came to mind. First, I thought "they obviously don't know all the unsafe things I've done growing up, or else they'd never have picked me." Followed by, "maybe they do know, and think that someone who did all that, and live to tell about it, must have a thing or two to teach about safety." This article describes one of those "lived to tell about it" things.
I grew up on a dairy farm in northern Pennsylvania. Anyone growing up around these operations knows that safety on the farm is too often governed more by survival instinct than by any deliberate safety rules or procedures. If I had known then what I know now about Operational Risk Management tools, I hope I would not have put myself in the situation I am about to describe.
It was the summer haying season. As a farm kid, haying season was one of the few opportunities you had to earn some extra money, so you made the most of it. Having finished haying our farm, I was helping our neighbors with some of their fields.
If you don't know much about haying, let me quickly describe it. Tractors and machinery are used to cut the hay and rake it into rows in the fields. After it dries in the field for a few days it is ready to bale.
Most dairy farms in that day still used square-balers. A square-baler is towed behind a tractor where it gobbles up the row of hay and compresses it into bales that are about a foot high, a foot and a half wide and three feet long. These bales usually weigh between 50 and 100 pounds. Some square-balers, like the one we owned, dropped these bales on the ground.
Our neighbors had a fancy baler with a bale-kicker attached. A bale-kicker is basically a metal frame containing six spinning rollers that grab hold of a hay bale and then launch it about 10 feet in the air and 20 feet back so it lands in the hay wagon towed behind the baler. Once the wagon is full, it is unhitched from the baler and pulled to the barn where the bales are unloaded and stacked inside.
There are a couple of other things you need to know about haying. One, a wagon that has bales all jumbled in pile, after they've been launched into it by the kicker, will fill up much faster than a wagon that has bales stacked neatly. This means you need to make many more trips to the barn and it generally slows down the operation. Therefore, many farmers have someone in the wagon to stack the bales.
The second thing is, just like in the military, rank has its privileges on the farm. If you are a high-ranking person, like the farmer's wife, you get to drive the tractor that is pulling the baler and wagon. This is the job to have, a canopy over your head, a breeze in your face, life is good! The next best job, usually taken by the farmer, is driving the full wagons to the barn.
Now, we move to the bottom of the totem pole. Next is the guy in the wagon pulled behind the baler. He plays catch with a machine chucking 100-pound hay bales at his head. This job is usually done by the farmer's son if he is old enough.
At the bottom of the farm hierarchy is the guy stacking the hay in the barn. This is the pits. It is hot, humid, dusty and there is no breeze. Added to that, you have 100-pound hay bales falling 20 feet to land in your immediate vicinity. If you are lucky enough not to be smacked by a falling bale, you get to move it 20 feet across the floor and stack it in the 10 seconds it takes until the next bale falls.
Stacking hay bales in the barn is the job I normally wound up with. But hey, I was earning $5 and hour, how could you beat that?
On this summer day, after spending most of it in the alfalfa abyss, I was finally given an opportunity to escape to the fields. Upon reaching the baling operation, I needed to get into the wagon being pulled behind the baler. Maybe I was dehydrated, maybe I was just so excited to be free outside, I don't know. But for some reason, I was in a hurry to get into that wagon and show how well I could catch flying square bales. I think I was hoping to prove my bale-catching prowess so I would be promoted to wagon-boy and someone else could go abandon all hope in the barn.
This is where I wish I knew about the Personal Risk Management memory aid ACT. Assess your mission, Consider options to limit risk then Take appropriate action. Those are three simple steps that I could have used as I tried to find the best way to get into the moving hay wagon.
The floor of a hay wagon sits about 3-feet off the ground. The edges and back of the wagon have eight-foot-high sides made out of wooden boards. The front has a two- or three-foot-high gate that folds down for unloading the bales. Obviously the easiest way in is over the gate.
I was now walking backwards in between the moving baler and hay wagon. Hopefully you are thinking, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Why not stop the wagon and then get on board?" But, you've had ORM training, and you're using ACT. I was not.
So, I'm walking backwards trying to figure out how to climb over the front of the wagon, which is at eye-level. My plan was to step on the wagon tongue and then put a foot up on the wagon and step over the front.
However, there was another hazard I had to consider, which thankfully I did. The wagon tongue was directly in line with the bale-kicker which was periodically hurling bales to the back of the wagon. Getting clocked in the back of the skull by a 100-pound bale that has just been launched out of the bale-kicker was not my idea of fun. So, I paused long enough to determine exactly how much time I had between bale launches to scramble over the front of the wagon.
With my path charted and the timing figured out, I was ready to go. I waited for the, 'ka-chunck' bale launch and sprang into action. Left foot up on the wagon tongue, right foot up on the...that's odd, my right foot seemed to be stuck to the ground. In the blink of an eye, I found myself thrown backwards onto the ground.
Lying flat on my back, I looked down at my right foot. What I saw was the wagon tire rolling up over my ankle and shin. It was the tire that had pinned my foot to the ground and then thrown me backwards. Now time had nearly stopped and I was thinking "Hmmm, I forgot about the tires. Bet that is going to hurt once the pain makes it up to my brain. Good thing most of the weight is in the back of the wagon. Hey, the tire is half-way up my shin now. Looks like it is going to roll straight up my leg. Uh oh, I'm at the end of that leg. That would really be bad. Better do something quick!"
First I tried to escape to the outside of the wagon, but all that did was cause the tire to start to track towards the inside of my leg. I really did not like where this was heading. Next I reversed course and jerked my torso back towards the wagon tongue as the tire rolled over my knee. This allowed the tire to track to the outside of my thigh and off my leg. I allowed myself a split-second "Hurrah!" and then considered the fact that I was about to go completely underneath the running gear of the wagon. With some sort of an adrenaline-fueled, country-boy break-dance maneuver that I've never been able to figure out, let alone duplicate, I found myself sitting to the outside of the wagon as it came to a stop.
It took me a moment to realize the noise I heard was no longer from the tractor and baler, but from my pounding heart, as I sat there contemplating what had just happened and waiting for that pain signal to hit my brain. Luckily, the pain that I imagined was on the way never arrived. While it didn't exactly feel good, I was able to get up, climb into the wagon and nurse my wounded pride as I stacked the rest of the bales that day.
I'm not exactly sure what I did to my foot, because I never had any X-rays taken. But I know what I learned from the experience. I learned that only considering the quickest way to complete a mission is a recipe for disaster. If you don't consider the hazards standing between you and mission success and then take the appropriated actions to limit those risks, you could find yourself having to quickly determine a means of not being run over by a many-ton hay wagon, or something else just as bad.
So, the next time someone mentions the three steps to Personal Risk Management: Assess your mission, Consider options to limit risk and Take the appropriate action, hopefully you will remember this story. Then you will be able to apply A C T to your on-duty or off-duty life and avoid the prospect of being metaphorically crushed in a hay field.