He could have slowed down, could have had a man beside him, could have made any number of different choices. But he was in a rush. He wanted the job done. And – like every farmer – he’d taken similar risks a hundred, a thousand times before. On September 22nd, 2009, fate called his bluff.
For 35 years, Ray and Leona Murphy have raised cattle on 3500 acres near Bonneyville, Alberta. He’s a cattleman’s cattleman: a veteran producer with 14 successful bull sales behind his name; a track record of breeding topnotch charolais, red angus and black angus stock; a been there, done that kind of cowboy. And he’s got a message for every cow-calf producer he knows: “If it could happen to me, it could happen to you too.”
Murphy knew he had a weak heart; was scheduled, in fact, for open heart surgery in Edmonton just days later. But farm chores aren’t patient and the to-do list needed doing, so Murphy pushed extra hard to get the farm organized before his departure.
Top of the list was tying up some loose ends before sending a handful of culled cattle to auction. When he noticed one of the auction bulls was missing a CCIA RFID tag, Murphy did what almost any other producer confronted with a quick job would do: he grabbed his tagger to get the job done. The mature bull was too big to fit into the head gate of the squeeze. Two previous broken wrists convinced Murphy not to put his arm through the bars of the squeeze, so he opted instead to tag him in the runway leading up to the chute. To complicate matters, there was a heifer already in the runway, which made handling the bull more difficult because the bull wanted to keep his head low, between the hind legs of the heifer.
Murphy climbed onto the catwalk beside the chute and leaned over. He doesn’t remember how the next few seconds unfolded. Whether it was the bull’s head or the cow’s hind end that connected with Murphy’s head, throwing him backwards, and whether his spine was damaged on impact with the animal or not until he hit the ground are insignificant details.
“All of us, we think we’re tough. We think we’re made of steel. Until we’re not,” he says. “I must have been unconscious. When I woke up, I felt like a football. I could feel my head but that was it: no arms, no hands, no legs. All I could do was lay there.”
15 minutes, maybe half an hour Murphy lay on the muddy ground beside the chute before luck and good instincts made his hired man come looking for him.
The diagnosis was grim: Murphy’s C3, C4 and C5 neck vertebrae were badly damaged, leaving him without movement in his lower body except for the ability to wiggle a single toe.
“As my daughter reminds me, most people are recognized for what they do right; I’m now known for what I did wrong,” says Murphy. “Farming, especially with livestock, is a high risk occupation. I’m sure every single farmer has a story about if they were an inch closer or a second later. You have to remember that life and health are precious. I want to be a reminder that you gotta think about that every time you make a risky choice. Just because you’ve gotten away with doing things unsafely in the past doesn’t mean it’s okay to keep doing them.”
Agriculture has the highest total number of fatal injuries of all industries in Canada. According to the Alberta Centre for Injury Control & Research (ACICR), 355 Albertans were killed between 1990 and 2009 because of injuries sustained on a ranch or farm. For each of these deaths, 25 other people – more than 9000 in total – were admitted to hospital for an agriculture related injury. Animal-related injuries are the leading cause of non-machine-related fatalities. According to the Canadian Agriculture Industry Reporting, there were 123 animal-related fatalities in Canada between 1990 and 2008, 52 per cent of which involved cows/steers/calves.
The costs of these injuries and deaths are staggering. According to the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA), an on-farm injury that requires hospitalization directly costs the medical system, community, family and business an average of $10,000. If the injury causes a permanent disability, the price-tag goes up to about $143,000, not including lost productivity. A fatality costs double that figure again: in the range of $275,000. All together, the total direct cost of farm related injuries in Canada in a single year is in excess of $450 million dollars. Of course, the indirect and human costs of farm injuries are far higher.
“If you take the risks, you have to be prepared for the consequences,” says Murphy. “But it’s pretty important to remember that it’s not just you that will feel the consequences of your choices: an accident or injury doesn’t just affect one person; it affects your whole family and your farm too.”
March 9th to 15th, 2014 is Ag Safety Week. CASA encourages all farmers to ‘Talk About It’: use this week to get yourself, your family and your employees started on the habit of thinking safety first.
“Safety is something that affects people every day, especially in the farming community where work is home,” says Michelle French Lancaster, communications officer with CASA. “Getting people engaged in conversations about on-farm safety, whether those conversations are between children and parents, between husbands and wives, or between operators and farm workers, is a really necessary first step in making our farms safer.”
“Safety is a mindset. Agriculture could learn a lot from the oilfield. We might laugh about how they have safety meetings all the time, but the more aware you are of safety, the more it’s front and center in your mind.”
To stay safer on the farm, prioritize safety: “Some things are not meant to be climbed on or over or under, but we do it every day,” says Murphy. “It comes down to choices.”
Avoid working alone. “Farming is marginal profit so you end up doing a lot by yourself. But, I think of all the ways it could have been different if I’d had someone with me that day. We could have talked through options; he would have seen that what I was doing was dangerous, we could have worked together to do it more safely.”
Communicate. Especially in this day of advanced technology, staying in touch with others about where you are and what you are doing is not just smart, it should be absolutely routine.
Make sure you’re well covered by WCB insurance, life insurance and disability insurance. “Banks require life insurance on loans, but I would strongly encourage people to put disability insurance on their loans too. The only reason we put disability on our loan was because our loan officer had a relative who had sustained a farm accident. You need more than a token amount: you need to be prepared because an accident can happen any time,” says Murphy.
Murphy’s progress in four years is remarkable. Today, he can stand, transfer his weight, walk with assistance for as long as 10 minutes, feed himself. He counts himself blessed.
“There is life after injury. For everything you can’t do, there are other things you can do and enjoy,” he says. “Maybe that’s my most important message: life is good.”