Mishaps, malfunctions, and near misses

Scott Coffel, Director, Hanson Center for Technical Communication

Helping farmers re-engineer their environment is Nicole Becklinger’s passion. A Ph.D. candidate in Industrial and Systems Engineering at The University of Iowa, Becklinger grew up on a small family farm, whose joys and hazards have inspired her doctoral research project—which she describes with refreshing simplicity on her project web site: "an agricultural self-report system that seeks to take the “warning from a neighbor” concept to the next level by connecting farmers across the country." In other words, her project is not a database of abstract information but a life- (and limb) saving memory bank of mishaps, malfunctions, and near misses of the utmost relevance to the agricultural community in which she was born and raised.

Becklinger, who specializes in Human Factors Engineering, conceived the technical framework for her idea while earning a Master’s degree in Human Factors in Aviation, a field of study that gave her an opportunity to conduct cost projects with the Aviation Safety Reporting System, on which her own self-report system is based.

But the human framework is just as important. Living on a farm exposed her to the hazards of working with unreliable machinery and unpredictable livestock. She says that her father likes to joke that he is the “poster child” for this project: during Nicole’s junior year in high school she and her father picked up a rock with a hay baler. The rock mangled the bale forks and the compressor bar but not the box to which they were connected. Seeing the problem, Nicole and her father first thought they would separate the box from the damaged parts. Fortunately for them, they went to the local farm equipment parts store first, where they were told never to disengage the box, for it contained a spring that could easily impale a human being.

The memory of this incident, and the knowledge gained from their near-miss experience, gave birth to an idea: to compile a critical mass of stories robust enough to go “live,” thus providing farmers a heads-up on a comprehensive range of hazards of which they might not be aware. Down the road, Becklinger’s self-report system even has the potential to benefit equipment manufacturers, who can access the system to augment their own quality control process.

Nicole’s website also includes an agricultural safety and health blog, on which she posts information coming into the database, revealing trends that will help her categorize the reports and make the searching process more efficient. All farmers (and family members with stories to tell) are invited to visit the website and make a report. Nicole’s greatest challenge is to make enough farmers aware of her reporting system. Even though reports are anonymized, some farmers may be averse to sharing such tales of woe, more inclined to blame themselves instead of tools and machines for the incidents that inevitably take place. On the other hand, farmers who participated in Becklinger’s pilot study for this project admired Nicole’s grasp of agricultural issues; her “farm-cred,” as it were, is genuine, and bodes well for the system’s ultimate success.