Reducing agricultural injury and illness risk through coalitions
By Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering
December 11, 2017

Robert Aherin, ABE professor and extension agricultural safety specialist, shares his #ACESstory!

The agricultural industry consistently has the highest work related death rate of any industry in the U.S. with about 20 deaths per 100,000 farmers and employees. Agricultural work involves exposure to things such as powerful farm equipment, livestock, grain storage handling facilities, chemicals, confined spaces, and power tools that pose high injury risk.

Reducing injury risk involves improving the safety behaviors of farmers and workers, improving the safety design of equipment and facilities, and developing effective policies. In order to have a significant impact on major safety issues, forming and utilizing coalitions can provide an effective force. Agricultural safety professionals, farmers, agricultural workers or their representatives, rural educators, and policy representatives make up these groups. The benefits include enhancing the legitimacy of the issues addressed, sharing expertise, sharing resources, enlarging grant support potential, improving communication to target audiences, and understanding various aspects of the issues.

An example of an effective coalition is the Grain Handling Safety Coalition. I helped form the coalition about six years ago after the tragic deaths of two young men (ages 14 and 19) in a grain facility in Mount Carroll, Illinois. This incident gained national attention and was one factor in OSHA making the grain industry a target industry, resulting in enhanced fines and inspections.

Because this tragic incident involved both a grain company and farmers who had leased the facilities, it also gained the attention of farmers. Initially 14 organizations joined the coalition; presently there are over 25 organizations involved.  Some of the organizations represented included University of Illinois Extension, the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois, the Illinois Farm Bureau, Purdue University Extension, OSHA, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Carle Medical Center, the Community Health Partnership of Illinois (representing migrant workers), FFA, representatives of various large grain companies, and others.

The coalition’s mission is “To prevent and reduce accidents, injuries, and fatalities across the grain industry spectrum through safety education, prevention, and outreach.” One of the needs identified by the coalition was an easily accessible and comprehensive low-cost training program. With myself serving as the project director through the University of Illinois, the coalition applied for competitive training grants, primarily from OSHA but also from two NIOSH-funded agricultural centers over the past six years. The applications were very attractive to these funding organizations because they were supported by so many organizations from across the grain industry.

To date, the coalition has received approximately $800,000 in funding to support their initiatives. The coalition has conducted training programs for workers, supervisors, farm operators, and safety professionals, with more than 3,000 participants throughout the country. Resources developed include training modules on 12 different grain safety topics, which include three modules focused on older youth.

The coalition developed four videos. Three web based self-learning modules are being completed. All the PowerPoints include a Spanish version. More information on these resources and the coalition can be found at

The coalition also has addressed significant national grain safety issues, including a method to establish a lifeline in existing grain bins and a procedure to allow a worker to be in a grain bin when the sweep auger is running. OSHA has accepted both. Some members have also been involved with the ASABE committee developing a new grain bin safety standard.

Coalitions, with the right mix of representation and individuals who are willing to work together to affect positive changes in injury and health risks, can pay big benefits on many levels.


Robert Aherin is a professor in ABE and an extension agricultural safety specialist at the University of Illinois.