Ranching business not without pain

Occupation frought with risks, safety hazards

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What would you do if you couldn't do your job anymore?

Unfortunately that kind of thinking is often out of the question if you happen to be a farmer or a rancher.

Agric-ultural workers, who are commonly known to work long, back-breaking hours, face the highest risks of injuries and threat of disabilities -- an issue that shouldn't be taken lightly, said some officials from AgriAbility.

The group that advocates for disability rights of agriculture workers is planning a conference in Craig early next month to address those issues and to show ranchers and farmers how to get the job done while reducing the potential for injuries.

According to cattle rancher Gary Visintainer, some of the physical work of ranching has become easier over the years with the advent of new technology. Hay bales are now moved with machines, replacing the need for workers to heave bales onto trailers.

Visintainer also sees a trend among ranchers to dig fewer fences posts holes by hand, as many ranchers first punch holes in the ground with post drivers.

"I think overall the change in ranching has been fairly progressive," he said. "Probably farmers and ranchers aren't wearing out as much."

Though the agriculture industry has embraced some technology over the years, the thinking that rural agriculture workers aren't "wearing out" couldn't be further from the truth, according to some studies.

In fact, agriculture production is one of the nation's most hazardous occupations, claiming 182,500 farm- and ranch-related injuries a year, stated a report by the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health.

Additionally, 288,000 agriculture workers nationwide between the ages of 15 and 79 have a disability that affects their ability to perform one or more essential tasks on the farm or ranch, said another study.

It's the long hours of repetitive work without breaks that contributes to many of the agriculture-related injuries, said Elisa Shackelton, an agent for the Colorado State University's Moffat County Cooperative Extension office.

To get a better feel of a day in the life of a rancher, Shackelton spent some time last summer as a ranch hand.

"It was so exhausted by the end of the day, I felt like I was hit by a truck," she said.

Shackelton described her day building a chute, herding sheep into it and later shearing them.

"We had to manhandle each animal," she said. "It was a lot of carrying, building and stacking heavy hay bales. It went from one nasty task to another."

Indeed, the life of an agriculture worker often strings jobs together leaving little time -- or justification -- for rest.

Rancher Leon Fedinec said he works an average 40-hour week -- during the slow winter season.

"In the summer, it's double those hours, easy," he said.

"It depends on what you've got going for the day," Fedinec added. "Sometimes you eat lunch on the run or you don't eat at all. You really don't have a lot of time so you just keep going."

The "lack of time" and often insurance dollars are factors that keep agriculture workers from getting medical help, said chiropractor Allan German of Craig Chiropractic.

On average, German estimated he sees three to four agriculture workers to every eight to ten coal miners or other hard laborers -- all of whom need the therapy.

Part of the hesitation to seek out medical attention may be that many self-employed agriculture workers lack coverage, German said.

"Most of the ranchers wait a long time before they come to see me," he said. "Sometimes that $30 to $40 cost keeps them from coming in that time and putting it off."

Regrettably, he said, those kinds of decisions only hurt agriculture workers, because 90 percent of many injuries are preventable.

"It's a bad thing here," German said. "They don't know how to slow down and they end up working 18 to 20 hours a day."

Sadly, a life of hard farm or ranch work without taking preventative measures can lead to early deaths, he added.

Older agriculture workers have a life expectancy of three to five years after retiring from the business, he said.

"The attitude of a farmer is they wait until it gets really bad before they do something about it. Once they get off the farm, the pain progresses faster and it catches up with them," German added.

To take the edge off, Visintainer got involved in hobby that he said, "takes his mind completely off the work."

Using a passion for training and judging dogs in agility exercises, the lifetime rancher realized he needed more in his life.

"I didn't think I needed anything else besides work before, but I do now," he said. "I think taking a break is something our forefathers thought they should do only when they retire."

Shackelton agreed that agriculture workers need to learn to take it easy. She listed a number of ergonomic tools and ways to work smarter instead of harder.

"It's that repetitive motion of shearing sheep or stooping over that really gets to people," she said. "Get a hot tub and relax at the end of the day. Be sure to eat right and know your limits."

Though Visintainer lost his right arm to hay baler when he was 17, he said sometimes no amount of preparation could predict the worst of accidents in the agriculture business.

"The last thing I remember is looking down at my watch and seeing it was four o'clock," he said recalling his last memory before the accident.

The abundance of machines and long hours on a farm or ranch may perpetuate some accidents.

According to a study released by AgriAbility, amputations are the third most common disability followed by orthopedic-related injuries of those enrolled in the program.

"People don't realize the sacrifices (ranchers and farmers) make to produce food for our country and the world," Shackelton said. "Sometimes they're not given the credit they deserve."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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