- Harvest of Hazards: Family Farming, Accidents, and Expertise in the Corn Belt, 1940−1975 by Derek S. Oden
By Derek S. Oden. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017. Pp. 292.
Although farm technologies occupy a central place in Harvest of Hazards, Derek S. Oden frames the work principally as an agricultural and rural history. Oden thus offers little analysis of how farmers (or the experts advising them) constructed meanings around the technologies that often proved to be the cause of injury and death. More descriptive than argumentative, the book documents rather than traces change over time; causal connections remain elusive, with explanations assumed or asserted rather than interrogated. Nonetheless, even as a before and after snapshot, Oden's study proves valuable—both as the first serious study of its subject and in offering a salutary reminder that moving an ostensibly familiar story to a rural setting can cast it in a new and revealing light.
Although he gives a nod to some of the farm-safety movement's antecedents, Oden begins his story in World War II, by which time government regulation, the demands of labor unions, and "voluntary corporate efforts [had] combined to drastically improve workplace safety" in much of America's industrial sector. Farms, by contrast, remained as dangerous as ever. Moreover, because they were homes as well as workplaces, children faced many of the same dangers as their parents, and when injuries occurred, the rural nature of farms could delay medical attention.
Although Oden points to a number of risks unique to farms—from fires ignited by grain dryers to injuries at the hooves and teeth of livestock—he focuses on those posed by farm machinery and chemicals. The rapid adoption of new technologies in the mid-twentieth century led many to worry to that "mechanical transformations had outpaced farmers' capacity to adapt to the new machines." Tractors, elevators, and wagons crushed farmers with alarming regularity, and fast-moving parts—from spinning power-takeoff shafts (often shielded) to elevators and augers (generally lacked protective features)—cost farmers limbs and lives. As new technologies came on the scene, their maintenance fell to farmers, who had to measure maintenance and safety precautions against the time dedicated to doing things that kept their farms solvent. To such mechanical perils were added chemical ones. Farmers predictably understood little about the chemical properties and potential unintended consequences of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers, and they used them, in contrast to factory workers, without any monitoring. Sparse, sometimes contradictory, instructions on the chemicals' labels compounded the danger, and Oden incorporates oral histories from farmers that underscore their regular exposure to (and often casual treatment of) such chemicals.
In these broader circumstances, a coherent farm-safety movement [End Page 1260] emerged in the early 1940s and gained traction over the next two decades. By 1944, the National Safety Council had created a separate division dedicated to farm safety. Not coincidentally, Farm Safety Week was inaugurated that same year. During the 1950s, the creation of organizations like the Institute of Agricultural Medicine lent momentum to the movement. Through printed material, direct instruction (often by land-grant institutions and the USDA's extension service), and demonstrations (tractor-tipping sparked particular enthusiasm), farm safety advocates sought to sell the safety message to sometimes skeptical farmers, who largely accepted risk as an inherent part of their occupation. Unsurprisingly, farm-safety advocates probably scored their greatest success via youth organizations, and Oden devotes an entire chapter to those efforts.
By the 1970s, federal laws restricted child labor on farms and protective measures like rollover protection systems and slow-moving-vehicle emblems had become commonplace, though hardly ubiquitous. The farm-safety movement, however, had fractured along several fault lines: as farm-safety specialists sought to carve out a distinctive professional identity, farmers resented the regulatory agencies charged with protecting them, and the movement's leaders divided over whether or not equipment manufacturers should be held legally culpable in lawsuits stemming from farm accidents. And despite real improvements, farming remained a dangerous occupation.
Although his book is more successful in...