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U of I offers new ag safety emphasis
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[MAY 5, 2004]  URBANA -- With agriculture consistently ranked as one of the most hazardous occupations in America, it's fitting that the University of Illinois Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering is offering students a new option in their education -- an emphasis in the area of agricultural safety and health.

What's more, some students selected for the new ag safety and health program will receive a stipend or tuition assistance.

"In order to be effective in bringing down the high illness, injury and death rate farm people experience, ag professionals need to have a better appreciation of where the risk is and how you evaluate it to make changes that reduce the risk," said Bob Aherin, a professor of agricultural engineering and an ag and safety specialist at the U of I.

Many people believe that good old-fashioned common sense is all that's required to prevent accidents, but that's not really true, Aherin said. Agricultural safety is a complicated area.

"There are several key elements involved in an agricultural incident," said Aherin. "The first is the human element. What is a person's perception of the risk at hand, and what are they willing to do to minimize or eliminate that risk?"

A second element is what Aherin terms "agents" that cause injuries. "Workers need to understand the safety issues associated with the equipment they use, the processes they employ, the animals they handle and the facilities they use. The focus here is to understand how to guard, or redesign, a hazard to eliminate or minimize the risk involved with it."

A third element is environmental. For example, how do people deal with working in the heat, working at night or working under adverse weather conditions?

To teach students how to evaluate all of these elements, Aherin and his colleagues have put together what is called an emphasis area in ag safety and health. At the core of this program are three 300-level courses that can be taken by upper level undergraduates or graduate students.

The first course focuses on agricultural injuries, the second on agricultural illnesses and diseases, and the third teaches agricultural safety systems analysis.

"The third course goes a little deeper for students," said Aherin, "teaching them how to evaluate safety from a systems standpoint, whether it's analysis of human behavior, a machine or an environment." At least one of the other courses, on injury or illness, is a prerequisite to the systems analysis course.

Students may also complete an individualized special projects course, and there are more than a dozen other courses offered from a variety of colleges in the university that will support the study of ag safety. These are 100-, 200- or 300-level courses and include such topics as industrial safety, behavioral psychology and community health.


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For graduate students with a real interest in ag safety, who are willing to commit to four or more courses in this area and preferably focus their thesis topic on an ag safety issue, Aherin can offer a traineeship with a stipend of approximately $800 per month and $2,200 to assist with tuition and fees each year.

Undergraduates who are willing to complete at least two of the three core ag safety classes, as well as a special project or a related course, may receive $500 toward tuition and fee reimbursement for each course they take. Depending on the number of courses taken, Aherin's funding can support anywhere from seven to nine students.

Because funding is limited, Aherin must select students who have an agricultural background, are planning a career in agriculture or a related field such as rural health care, and will have an impact in the area of ag safety and health.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health provides much of the funding for this work through a special grant focusing on agriculture. The grant is administered through the U of I's School of Public Health in Chicago.

In addition to the agriculture program at the U of I in Urbana, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health funds similar programs for students in Chicago in industrial hygiene, occupational medicine and occupational nursing. Trainees in Urbana travel to Chicago several times a year to interact with the trainees there.

For Aherin, the next step is to establish a special emphasis certification in ag safety and health at the university. This should be available by the fall of 2004 and will be a helpful tool when graduates are seeking employment.

Aherin noted, "A random sample of 298 agricultural and rural health employers were surveyed to assess the types of ag safety and health knowledge they would like to see students acquire. Of the 119 employers who responded, 84 percent indicated that some academic training in ag safety and health would be desirable in future employees.

"Students who are going to work professionally in the agricultural industry need some technical background," Aherin concluded. "They need to understand safety and health issues, because we know they'll have opportunities in their careers to make a difference in reducing injury risk."

[University of Illinois news release]



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