Harvest Accidents Are Usually A Product Of Stress And Sleep Deprivation

U of I's Chip Petrea delves into the psychology that can result in harvest accidents.

Published on: Sep 10, 2013

Farmers know when they're doing something unsafe.

Regardless of the risk, many of them choose to do it anyway. University of Illinois' Chip Petrea has studied the behavioral side of farm incidents for many years. After losing both his legs in a baling incident, Petrea wanted to know why farmers make risky choices when caught in stressful situations.

Operating a combine, driving tractors and unloading semis are potentially dangerous tasks. However, harvest brings two key components that ratchet up the potentially lethal consequences even further – stress and sleep deprivation.

Get some sleep
Most of the state's farmers experience some sort of sleep deprivation throughout the growing season. Petrea says eight hours is the average requirement for most people. Some bodies need more; others can get by on less.

Harvest Accidents Are Usually A Product Of Stress And Sleep Deprivation
Harvest Accidents Are Usually A Product Of Stress And Sleep Deprivation

When that minimum isn't met, the body develops a sleep debt. Petrea says a serious sleep debt can impair judgment in the same manner that two beers would.

He also cautions that catching quick naps here and there won't make up for a full night's rest. There are five stages of sleep. The last is Rapid Eye Movement sleep. Just prior to reaching REM, the brain achieves a restful state in stages three and four, Petrea notes. At this point, the brain goes into a maintenance cycle, which helps alleviate the day's stress.

"Don't worry," you say. "I'll go hard and then catch up when it rains."

It's a nice thought. But, Petrea says it isn't practical.

"You can't catch up from five days of sleep deprivation in one weekend," he notes. At most, the body can make up for about one hour of lost sleep per day.

And don't try to take long naps during the day. Messing up the nightly sleep routine will only compound trouble, Petrea adds.

Stress impairs judgment
Stress is the other hazardous harvest component. It often creates an inability to concentrate. Thinking clearly can be nearly impossible when severely stressed.

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"Everyone has a decision making process they typically follow," Petrea explains. "Some are impulsive. Others follow a checklist. Problem is, when stress enters the picture, many people bypass that decision making process."

Petrea's accident was prompted when the baler broke down in the field. His stressed mind told him he only had one option – get the baler running again and finish the job.

"I was there to bale hay," he remembers. "The only alternatives I considered were how I could get the hay baled. One of the things I didn't think of was just to quit for the day."

Minimizing stress
Petrea recognizes that the psychology of harvest will likely never change. It's all about mitigating the stress.

First off, Petrea says farmers need to acknowledge the stress. He realizes this won't make it any less stressful, but it may help modify thought processes when things get crazy.

He also recommends making a serious effort to go into harvest with proper sleep. Along with this, a physically fit body responds better under stress. Yes, eating well is important.

Speaking of eating, Petrea says eating too much or too little is a sign of serious stress.

Here's another tip: have a professional golfer's mentality during harvest. When the pros bogey a hole, they're able to push it out of their mind and concentrate on the next one.

Petrea says mistakes are a part of harvest. The key is not letting mistakes build into anxiety over what could have been done to prevent them. Move on and concentrate on the task at hand.

Lastly, go into the field with a clear head. Make every attempt to reconcile family problems before heading out for the day. This is a dangerous job and it requires undivided attention.