Tips to prevent injuries and continue working

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BARBARA MULHERN.
Tom Kojis of Kojis Produce has been farming with a disability for 37 years. Bottom left, Kojis, who has cerebral palsy, uses a van to get back and forth between his greenhouses and the family farm. He believes that if a farmer with a disability truly wants to farm, they can find a way to do it.

For Tom Kojis, farming with a disability is just a part of life. Kojis, who was born with cerebral palsy, planted his first acre of sweet corn with the help of his father 37 years ago. Today, Kojis manages Kojis Produce in Waterford, Wis., and he hoes, picks, sprays and performs other farm tasks from his wheelchair virtually every day.

"The only thing I don’t do is drive a tractor—I can’t get on it," says Kojis, who grows sweet corn, squash, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, onions and a variety of other vegetables on part of his father’s 150-acre farm.

"What I do differently is we have to plant the rows wide so I can get down them in my wheelchair. I have a backpack sprayer that I put right on the back of the wheelchair. The biggest thing is that it took me a long time to find a wheelchair that won’t break. Other than that, I feel that you either want to do this or you don’t. I want to do it, so I just figured out how," he says.

Kojis is among the growing number of fruit and vegetable growers with disabilities who continue to farm. In some cases, disabilities ranging from the loss of fingers or a hand to a spinal cord injury resulted from a traumatic injury on the farm. In other cases, becoming older can result in arthritis, reduced vision, hearing loss or other disabling conditions that may affect farm work.

No matter when or how the disability occurs, the challenge is the same: growing, packing and shipping safely.

Charles Schwab, extension safety specialist at Iowa State University, has seen more than his share of disabling farm injuries—injuries that he believes can usually be prevented.

"There are two types of disabling injuries," he notes. "One is a permanent disabling injury like the loss of an arm, leg or your eyesight. The other disabling injury is a temporary disabling injury like a broken arm that stops you from working for a time, but then you can get back to work."

Among the many ways a fruit or vegetable grower may be injured are by falling from equipment, a building or a ladder; being run over by a tractor or other farm equipment; getting entangled in a tractor’s power takeoff unit (PTO); suffering from heat stroke; being exposed to hazardous chemicals; straining the shoulders, neck or back; or sustaining severe cuts/lacerations while cutting or pruning.

"Knowledge and experience greatly assist farmers in preventing serious injuries, but it is not enough to know about the dangers or to have a vast amount of experience handling certain conditions," Schwab says. "For example, many farmers have the knowledge that tractor rollover deaths can be prevented with rollover protective structures [ROPS], yet the decision to operate tractors without ROPS continues."

Safety tips

For Kojis, safety is extremely important. "I am overly cautious because my dad lost his hands in a corn picker 45 years ago," he says. "I don’t let people operate a tractor without experience. Everything must be shut off or unplugged when they are done." Kojis’s father, who is now 82, continues to work on the farm "all the time," Kojis says.

Research has shown that an estimated 15 to 30 percent of farm operators and farmworkers in the United States have physical disabilities, many of them sustained on the job. The Breaking New Ground Resource Center (BNG) at Purdue University, a major resource for farmers with disabilities, believes that neither short-term nor long-term disabling conditions should automatically exclude a person from continuing to farm.

"Having a disability is not an appropriate litmus test for determining personal success, nor should it be used as a means to restrict the independence of persons with disabilities. It is recognized, however, that physical and cognitive disabling conditions can contribute to an increased potential for injury," from a statement by BNG.

One BNG study of farmers and ranchers with disabilities found that approximately 25 percent of those surveyed believed they had incurred a secondary injury that was the direct result of their disability. Of the documented injuries, 43 percent were severe enough to require professional medical attention.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BARBARA MULHERN.
Tom Kojis keeps a close watch on the onions, peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables he starts in the greenhouses outside of his home. The family farm he manages is located nearby.

The study also looked at whether farmers and ranchers with physical disabilities experienced similar types of injuries as their "able-bodied" counterparts. In most cases, the injury-causing agents identified in the study tended to mirror injury-causing agents reported in other injury studies of the general farm population.

Schwab says the primary safety messages for fruit and vegetable growers both with and without disabilities are as follows:

• Never rush. "Often, injured farmers comment that they were hurried because of the stressful condition of a deadline, weather, etc. They were working outside of their normal comfort levels and abilities to remain safe," he says.

• Use the right equipment for the job. Occasionally, the right tool or piece of equipment is not available or readily accessible. The choice to use something not intended for the job creates great safety risks, Schwab says.

• Always make the safe decision. "Too many times, injured farmers explain that this one time they decided to do it differently than they normally would. Safety is not something you do once. It is something you must do over and over again. It is important to think through what could happen before making your decision. Most farmers who have been injured would like to take back that one choice that might have been the pivotal decision they made," he says.

Two resources for farming with a disability are the Breaking New Ground Resource Center (BNG) at 800-825-4264 or http://cobweb.ecn.purdue.edu/~agenhtml/ABE/Extension/BNG/Resource%20Center/resourcecenter.html and the National Agr-Ability Project, http://www.agrability.org/index.html, whose leadership is housed within BNG.

Tips on Hiring Workers with Disabilities

How would you respond if a worker with one arm showed up on your farm applying for a job in your packinghouse?

In this particular situation, you "don’t have to ignore an obvious disability. You can say you are looking for a person and part of the job is lifting 40 pounds of oranges and packing them. Then, have the person show you how he can do it,"says Attorney Patrick Moody of Barsamian & Moody in Fresno, Calif.

It is important, he adds, that you not presume what the person can or cannot do. And, he notes, you can say to a job applicant: "Here is the job. Is there anything you would need as an accommodation to perform it?" But, you cannot ask a job applicant, "Are you disabled?"

While a situation such as that of a worker with a missing arm would be obvious, many persons have "hidden" disabilities ranging from epilepsy to heart conditions to bipolar disorder. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers employers with 15 or more employees, protects persons with disabilities from discrimination. It’s important that you also check the state antidiscrimination laws in states where you do business.

New amendments to the ADA, which went into effect this year, expand the number of persons covered by the ADA’s provisions. "These amendments make it easier to determine a disability," Moody says. The amendments also make it important that you engage in a "dialogue" with employees with disabilities to discuss different ideas for "reasonable accommodations," he says.

The ADA is complex and has many other provisions. Where agricultural employers most trip up, Moody says, is in not having written job descriptions, or in having job descriptions that don’t include the physical requirements of the job. "A big problem in agriculture is that you may be in harvest and you need 500 people today," he says. That is not the best time to sit down and start figuring out your job descriptions and the physical requirements of each job.

Violating the ADA’s provisions can be costly. In fiscal year 2008, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 19,453 complaints of discrimination under the ADA. The federal agency recovered $57.2 million in monetary benefits for the aggrieved persons, not including additional monetary benefits obtained through litigation.

For more information on employers’ responsibilities under the ADA and its recent amendments, visit www.eeoc.gov/facts/ada17.html.

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based agricultural/horticultural freelance writer.