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April 6, 2013

Farm safety program fights huge funding cut

By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star

---- — FLY CREEK — The New York Center for Agricultural and Occupational Health, an arm of Bassett Healthcare Network, is in danger of losing $2 million in federal funding — more than half its annual budget — as the result of proposed cuts in government research programs.

Thirty people work at the research center in Fly Creek, tracking occupational injuries and promoting methods and equipment for reducing risks for people employed in farming, forestry and fishing, said Dr. John J. May, the center’s director.

The potential loss of  funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health would represent nearly two-thirds of its total funding, including state support, he said.

“If the funding is cut, we could lose two thirds of our staff,” May told The Daily Star from inside the center, which serves residents of 12 Northeastern states.

Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, is helping the center and others like it fight the attempt to cut their funding. Gibson and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.,  are urging the House Appropriations Committee to restore the money, arguing that it helps save lives and prevent workers from getting maimed, injured or killed on the job.

May said, for example, that the center has been administering a program that helps farmers acquire roll bars for their tractors that, if installed, can greatly reduce the risk of serious injury or death in the event of a rollover accident.

The physician said the the safety equipment is “unquestionably life-saving.”

The center helps to arrange the purchase, and once the equipment is installed on a tractor, it sends a rebate check to the farmer within two weeks, he said.

The tractor safety rebate program, which has been running for about five years, is now recognized as a national model for preventing life-threatening injuries on farms, May said.

The center also helps to evaluate equipment used in farming and fishing with an eye toward redesigning them in ways that will reduce the potential for muscular and skeletal injuries without reducing  their operators’ productivity, May said.

For instance, a rake used for harvesting blueberries has been redesigned by center experts, and that tool is now used by about 70 percent of the blueberry workers in Maine, he said.

By collecting data on occupational injuries and analyzing where and how the accidents took place, May said the center develops strategies for preventing a repetition.

“We identify areas where we can come up with interventions,” May said.

Gibson said he is very impressed with the center’s research and outreach.

“The work they are doing is directly saving lives,” he said. “It’s about $40 million for all the programs and the research like this across the country. We’re going to fight through our bipartisan effort to make sure this cut doesn’t happen.”

May said he appreciates of the support from Gibson and Welch, and noted he is also working with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has been assisting in restoring the funding as the upper house of Congress takes up the budget.

Gibson said the request to keep funding level is “reasonable,” given the nature of the work the Fly Creek center and similar programs have been doing.

According to a letter he and Welch have sent to other members of Congress, workplace injuries cost the country $4 billion a week. 

The fatality rate of workers in farming, fishing and forestry is more than seven times higher than that for all industries, Gibson and Welch pointed out.

 “It is a population of workers who are really doing the most dangerous jobs in America,” May said. “And, obviously, we all like to eat, so we all count on these folks to be productive.”