Risky business

Moffat County jobs make top 10 most dangerous list


Charles Mead's mother thought her son would never live to see age 21.

After sustaining multiple injuries during decades of ranching and farming, Mead, 62, also finds himself lucky to be alive.

"I was run over by a baling truck when I was 11. I had three of my fingers cut off in combine. I got two concussions from being thrown off a horse," Mead said, ticking off a few of the injuries he 's sustained. "There are lots of others. I can't even remember all of them."

Although the ranching and farming lifestyle seems common, the repercussions of working around large equipment and livestock put the work in the nation's top 10 most dangerous jobs, according to a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Surprisingly, a number of Moffat County residents go to work every day in occupations that are considered the most dangerous. The list includes, in order of last year's national death rate: loggers, pilots, fishers, steel workers, trash and recyclable material collectors, farmers and ranchers, roofers, electrical power line installers, truck drivers, taxi drivers and chauffeurs.

Ranching, a (dangerous) way of life

One farmer or rancher dies about every 17 days in Colorado.

In the nation, 307 farmers and ranchers died on the job in 2004, according to the survey.

Yet, most people would be surprised by the reasons farmers and ranchers are dying, said Bob Fetsch, extension specialist and professor in the Department of Human Development and Studies at Colorado State University.

"It's from accidents, but nobody ever hears about that," Fetsch said. "It's danger in a dangerous occupation, something that can happen at any time."

Colorado's leading cause of external deaths by farmers and ranchers are from suicide, cattle and tractors and machinery, in that order, he said.

Colorado's farmers and ranchers suffer an average of 1,667 injuries a year, Fetsch said. Colorado's high accident and death rate among farmers and ranchers has put the occupation in the state's most dangerous, tied with coal mining, for the past 25 years, he said.

"People kind of take (farming and ranching) for granted, he said. "I think its death rate would surprise a lot of people."

That the occupation is dangerous comes as no surprise to longtime rancher Marianna Raftopoulos. She constantly thinks about the implications of her children riding horses or herding cattle.

"Ranchers on a whole take more risks," she said. "You'll take the risk to ride out in a snowstorm to feed or move the animals. In an office job, if you're in a snowstorm, you're certainly going to stay where you're at."

Raftopoulos said her husband, John Raftopoulos, was injured recently when he was picked up, thrown and pinned in a stall by a heifer that was calving. He broke seven ribs and "was in really bad shape," she said.

But the family learned from the unfortunate experience. They installed a new corral system and gates to keep animals moving and separate while trying to work with them.

"There are many ranchers who work alone and don't necessarily have people around if they're in danger," she said.

Flying through trouble

Ross Evans crashed airplanes six times, wrecking two planes, but he walked away every time.

Does the retired pilot think his job as a crop duster and flying instructor was hazardous?

"I don't think so," said Evans, who started Craig's Flying Service but quit the business about a decade ago. "It's just something that happens, like if your car stops."

Although Evans would be considered lucky to have survived so many close calls, other pilots aren't so fortunate. One hundred and nine pilots died on the job in the U.S. last year, making it the nation's second most-dangerous occupation.

John Ponikvar, a private pilot, said pilots generally try to adhere to a rule of flying high and fast. But the job of a crop duster is to fly low and maintain a consistent speed.

"It's amazing they don't crash more often," Ponikvar said.

Luke Tucker of Mountain Air Spray Co. has logged 1,000 flying hours. He estimates it will take another year of flying before he's qualified to fly a plane to crop dust area fields. By becoming a pilot, Tucker is following in the footsteps of his father, Blaine Tucker, and grandfather, Lee Tucker, who got his start flying in World War II.

The thrill of flying is what keeps Luke interested in flying as a career.

"You'd have to fly it, I guess," he said. "It's a job that you don't get tired of."

Lee started flying in 1941 with the Army Air Corps. After flying in the war, he gave it up until he started flying again in 1953. He's never crashed an airplane, though.

"It's not hard if you know what you're doing," he said.

Ponikvar said 90 percent of crashes occur from pilot error. And pilots often get into tricky situations flying over the Rocky Mountains trying to account for the elevation gain.

"They say low and slow will kill," he said. "That's why I fly high and fast."

In the line of fire

Chicago police Officer Timothy Simenson was just doing his job when he was shot twice in the face and killed.

All that's left of a friend and fellow officer is a memory and a small funeral card that Craig Police Department Cpl. Ken Johnson keeps close to his heart, literally, in a tiny pocket on his bullet-proof vest worn under his shirt on every shift.

"He was just doing a routine traffic stop, investigating an armed robbery," said Johnson, 39, telling the story about his co-worker's death. "The suspect came out of the trunk. (Simenson) was my age now."

Johnson worked for 13 years in Chicago's metro area as a police officer before taking a position at the Craig department in 2000. In Chicago, Johnson said four officers died during his tenure there.

But job-related dangers are always present serving on the Craig force, considering a high rate of drug and alcohol use and a large number of people who own firearms, Johnson said.

"This city would compare to any other city in the U.S. with crime," he said. "You never know what you're going to when you get a call. And dispatch only gives you part of the story."

Although law enforcement and emergency workers aren't expressly included in the government's list of the nation's top 10 most dangerous occupations, their jobs include putting themselves in harms way.

Seven hundred ninety-five people died from homicides in the workplace last year, and 2,460 died on highways. Fires and explosions killed 159 people, and 459 people died after coming into contact with harmful substances.

Deputy Fire Chief Bill Johnston said danger is inherent in firefighting and working for the Moffat County Hazardous Material team. The No. 1 killer of firefighters is heart attack, and the No. 1 killer in a structure fire is a building collapse.

"It's based on calculated risks," Johnston said. "When everyone is running out of a burning building, we're running in."

He said the two most potentially lethal situations in Moffat County recently were a tractor-trailer propane fire on U.S. Highway 40 west of Maybell last summer and a fire in a breaker box at Tri-State last week. The death of hundreds of firefighters in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was the most pronounced loss to emergency workers anywhere.

"We just sat around and cried," Johnston said. "It broke our hearts. How do you bury 345 of your brothers and sisters?"

Road hazards

Tom Doolin just wants to remove garbage, though the work puts him at risk.

According to the government, Doolin's job as a garbage hauler for the City of Craig is the nation's fifth most dangerous, accounting for 35 lives last year.

"You have to constantly be on your toes," Doolin said. "The biggest difficulty is pulling in and out of tight places."

When working on city streets, Doolin spends about equal time facing forward as looking back to see that his load is dumping correctly. He's heard that some concoctions of garbage can contain poisonous gases, but the department hasn't had any cases of people passing out from the fumes, he said.

City Foreman Rod Durham thinks the high fatality rate comes with employees working as garbage collectors in the traffic of larger cities.

However, a Meeker man died last spring when he was run over by a garbage truck while working. A beeper to indicate that the truck was backing up apparently wasn't working at the time of the man's death, an investigation concluded.

But more of Jay Wymore's fellow truck drivers died last year than all other occupations combined.

In 2004, 905 truck drivers and sales delivery drivers died. However an estimated 9.5 million people are employed by jobs directly related to trucking.

Wymore's employer's office, Peroulis Bros., displays numerous safety awards.

Wymore said he had one incident in his year and a half with the company when his truck slid off the side of the road. Keeping an eye on wildlife and other traffic is one of the most important aspects of the job, he said.

"There's a saying you hear over the radio a lot," Wymore said. "Keep the sunny side up and the dirty side down."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.