Brian Egel and his wife Pam Finke run a diverse farm operation in Muscatine County, Iowa. Diverse meaning corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa, and livestock production including 40 ewes and 50 beef cows. Egel also does custom baling in the summer and fall and sells corn, bean, small grains, and cover crop seed for several companies. Pam works both at the farm and as director of ticket operations for the University of Iowa Athletic Department.

“I think about safety in my ‘old age’,” he laughed, as he pointed out some of the most recent upgrades he’s made at his farm. Recently, he had a new stairway system installed on his grain bin that follows the contour of the bin. It has wide non-skid steps and a railing to reduce the risk of falls.

Egel knows all too well about falls and farm injuries. At age 8, his left arm was entangled in the auger of a grinder-mixer, resulting in amputation below the shoulder.

It happened when he scooped a handful of grain and tossed it into the running auger; he was imitating something he had often observed his dad doing.

A few months after the amputation, he was fitted with a prosthetic arm and hook at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.

Farming with one arm – or an arm and a prosthesis – increases the risk for falls and other farm injuries. Safely mounting or dismounting equipment, climbing, and using ladders require “three points of contact” on the equipment.

Try doing that with one arm.

In 2005, Egel broke his tibia in a fall while dismounting his tractor. It was the second time he had broken that leg.

“I was baling soybean stubble and was disgusted because the baler plugged. I got off that tractor going a hundred-miles-an-hour; I climbed down the absolute wrong way – face forward instead of backing down – and my foot caught between the bottom two steps when I pivoted to step off. I fell backward and had nothing to grab to break my fall, and my leg snapped. I think about that every single day.”

Whenever he gets on or off a tractor now, he’s facing it.

That injury required surgery and titanium hardware to repair the bone breaks, and it put him out of commission for over six weeks. Friends and neighbors stepped in to help Pam with their chores while he was laid up.

Since his fall, he’s replaced the narrow steps on three of his five tractors with safety steps and grab rails that he ordered from K&M Manufacturing (Renville, MN) and Unique Design Workshop (DeGraff, OH). The steps he prefers for his older tractor are one-piece closed steps, which he finds to be safest. An after-market “service step” mounted on his 4020 now gives him better access to the fuel tank and radiator.

He’s also made equipment and safety lighting upgrades as a result of roadway incidents when motorists struck his equipment in rear-end collisions or attempts to pass while he was making a left turn.

He installed a wide auxiliary light bar to the back of his cab that extends beyond the sides of the baler to improve visibility of the tractor when he’s pulling implements. With the addition of these swing-out lights, drivers on the road see two sets of flashers. His baler has lights and turn signals that coordinate with the tractor’s.

“I’d like to put a sign on the back that says ‘I MAKE LEFT TURNS!’”

Avoiding injury in his livestock operation is important too. Like most farmers, he’s had a few run-ins and close calls. In 1994, a boar swung its head into his leg, breaking the fibula. On another occasion, a cow swung a gate around that hit him in the legs and threw him to the ground; he ended up with a bruised bone.

He takes precautions now. “We just put up a crowding tub in the pasture that’ll help us work cattle and get them loaded. And I won’t keep ornery cows around anymore.”

Farm work puts a lot of wear and tear on the body. Physical work and stress to the musculoskeletal system for most farmers is distributed between both sides of the body, but the same amount of work, wear, and tear for Egel is all borne on his right side.

“I use my mechanical arm and hook in the fall and winter when it’s cooler. In the summer, it’s too hot and uncomfortable and irritates my right arm.” His prosthetic arm attaches with straps that go behind his left shoulder and neck and loop under his right arm ‘like a bra strap.’ His hook allows him to grab objects, carry 5-gallon buckets, stabilize shovels, or start a nail.

“One thing about it, I don’t say ‘ouch’ when I hit my hook with the hammer,” he laughed.

Every year or so, he takes his “arm” to Davenport for a tune up to adjust the cables and tension of the hook. As his body changes with age, the prosthesis needs to be adjusted as well. He replaces it when it’s “time for a new model” or when the cables wear out.

Still, the right side of his body has taken the beating of doing double the work, requiring several surgeries over the years to address rotator cuff damage, a torn bicep, and carpal tunnel syndrome. “I keep breaking, and they keep rebuilding me.”

He admits those surgery episodes were tough times. “I was without both arms. But I rely on Pam, my neighbors and friends who I know I can call, and they will always be willing to come help when we need them.”

It’s not apparent to most of us that tasks easily done with two arms or hands take so much longer – and a lot more imagination – to complete with only one.

“Brian has a natural adaptive nature to work around things he can’t do, and figure out a new way to do them,” Pam said. “And if he can’t figure out a new way, he’ll seek help.”

“You find a new way to do things when you’re disadvantaged,” he added. “I like to think of creative ways to make things work, and the older I get, I think of easier ways to do things.”

He manages a way to attach and detach a PTO shaft with one hand, by bending over and steadying it between his knees. To save wear on his arm and shoulder, he now uses a skid loader instead of manually lifting rolls of bale wrap. He recently bought a seed tender for his planter instead of lifting bags.

Simple changes like these save the stress on his right side, but they also make a lot of sense for any farmers in avoiding injury.

Knowing personally the impact of farm injuries has made him a believer in every day safety and protecting his health. During a short ride in his truck, and he pointed out the wide brim hat he wears when he’s out in the sun. He keeps sets of ear plugs in his trucks and uses them whenever he’s running farm machinery. His older open tractors have ROPS and sun canopies.

Most people think of the cost of injury as hospital and medical bills and lost work time.

“People don’t realize that farming after injury is expensive. I don’t get things done as fast because everything takes me longer to do,” he explained.

Adding or maintaining safety features on equipment costs money.

Some work, like welding, has to be hired out or done by friends since he can’t do it himself.

Egel hasn’t needed to adapt controls on his tractors or vehicles, but he did have his skid loader “replumbed” so all hand control functions could be done from the right side. He just replaced a PTO shield on a manure spreader, which cost $100. “I don’t like spending money but it’s something you gotta do.” He doesn’t regret spending money on safety features, though, because he wants to be able to keep doing what he enjoys, injury free. “Some people have told me to go on disability, but I wouldn’t want any other job. I like being my own boss.

“I like getting up early and getting my work done. I work to keep things neat because I take pride in the way the place looks and it’s safer too, not having things around to trip over or run into.”

What advice do they share?

“Don’t work when you’re tired,” Pam answered. “I’m glad he makes a point to get his work done before dark so he’s not working late hours while he’s tired.”

“Think everything through before you do a job,” Brian added. “It’s the little things, everyday things you take for granted that can go bad and get you hurt.”

More Information

An edited version of this story was originally published in Iowa Farmer Today.

Story & photos | Stephanie Leonard


Rick and Juan

It’s confession time.

How often do you take a safety risk working alone that you wouldn’t take, if someone was working alongside you?

A risk that you’d warn someone else about if you saw them try the same thing? After all, it’s “only me,” and you’re not setting an example and you know you won’t be caught?

Besides… you’re in a hurry and you haven’t got hurt yet!

Probably most of us have to admit to this, if we’re honest.

Maybe it’s using a hand grinder or a torch without eye protection. Not wearing the helmet or seatbelt “this time.” Troubleshooting equipment without turning it off or locking out moving parts. A quick check in a bin with the unloader running. Hoisting equipment without a jack stand or cribbing. Texting and driving.

We push our luck – and reinforce a bad habit – every time we “get away with” taking a shortcut around safety. Not getting caught or hurt makes the bad habit seem not so risky.

“In manufacturing, there are a lot of reminders” to work safely and to hold people accountable, Rick Friday, of Lorimor recalled, comparing his work at a local Winnebago plant with operating the family’s Iowa Century Farm.

“But there’s no safety committee on the farm, no safety meetings, no discipline if you don’t follow a safety rule, especially when you’re working alone.”

That’s not to say there aren’t consequences.

Friday and his wife Juanita farm 460 acres in Union County, 180 of which are part of their 122-year old family farm.

He’s a life-long farmer and part-time cartoonist, passionate about their 100-head cow herd of “Angus mommas,” two with bloodlines descended from his family’s purebred Herefords in the 1890s.

Four years ago, Friday took one of those “working-alone risks” that drove a lesson home.

“I was getting the barn ready for calving and was going to replace a light bulb over the pens.

“I got the 10-foot wooden stepladder out and climbed onto the top step to reach. It got to wobbling, and then I got to wobbling to counter it,” he explained, waving his arms to illustrate the balancing act.

The ladder side rail broke, and he fell 15 feet to the concrete.

“I laid there for a while in pain, couldn’t move; I figured my arm was broke. That night, my wrist swelled up huge.”

As it turned out, he’d broken ribs but not his arm.

It was over a month before he was up and getting around well.

“Lying there, I could just see that sign on the top step. I’d even moved my feet apart on the top step so I could read it,” he shook his head.

“It was stupid, and it happened so quick. I knew better, but I did it anyway. If Juan or anybody was in there with me they would have said ‘No, no, no!’ about getting on the top step. Somebody would have been holding the ladder.”

The ‘somebody’- or Friday- probably would have inspected the ladder before using it, like they did at the plant he had managed. He admitted he wouldn’t have let somebody else get on the top step.

“I don’t know if that ladder already had a crack in it.” He didn’t recall taking time to look it over before setting it up, though he knew it was on the level when he started climbing.

When we went to see where the fall happened, Juanita spotted a cracked rail on a different stepladder and told him to get rid of it.

“See! – she won’t let me get away with something unsafe!” he laughed.

“I am fortunate I’m one of those farmers in the neighborhood that still has all my fingers and thumbs,” he said, “but I know I go too fast, I’m always in a hurry. I’m always thinking of everything I have to get done.”

Juan nodded about him getting in a hurry, but she pointed out how vigilant he is about ensuring their grandkids’ safety on the farm, compared to his own. He agreed, but added, “As I get older, I’m not willing to take the risks that I used to.”

Friday says he’s lucky to not have been injured more severely.

“I know if someone was watching me, I would not have taken that risk of getting on the top step. Now I think about that every time I grab a ladder. Why does it take getting hurt to learn the lesson?”

“It’s often the routine things you do by yourself – when you know better and you wouldn’t take those risks if someone else was there to see or discipline you – that can get you hurt or worse,” he warned.

Especially during busy weeks, take the precautions when working alone that you expect your family, coworkers, or neighbors to take when you work together – not the short cuts.

As Friday concluded, “Many eyes make less fools.”

Work as if someone’s watching you.

More Information

The original version of this story was published in Iowa Farmer Today.

Cartoon | Rick Friday

Story & photos | Stephanie Leonard



A Shortcut … to the ER

Crash, snap, groan.

Those were the sounds of a shortcut.

It was a beautiful Sunday in May, and I was gung-ho to get a lot done: weed, clean gutters, till garden, and set up my patio.

I hauled a 10-foot fiberglass step ladder up from the barn for the gutter work, but decided to first hang ceramic pots on the pergola. I only needed a couple extra feet to reach the hooks, and I weighed the options of carrying the big ladder around the house versus giving it a try with a 2-foot aluminum step ladder that was nearby, lighter, and easier to maneuver.

I knew the short ladder was the poorer choice, safety-wise. I wouldn’t have three points of contact on the ladder that the 10-foot ladder allowed. I had a heavy pot to lift. I knew you shouldn’t get on the top step. There was no soft place to fall.

On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have to get on that top step. And it would only take about five seconds to hang the pot. Besides, falling on the usual well-padded body part isn’t a big deal – my words might turn the air blue, but so what.

I took the shortcut.

In the split second it takes to fall off a ladder, you don’t know how it happened.

I don’t remember standing on the top step but I likely did.

I don’t remember reaching forward or to the right, but I likely did.

Yet in that split second, Oh-no- it’s-happening-this-is-going-to-be-bad- what-a-stupid-mistake races clearly through your mind before you’ve even hit the ground.

A subconscious response tells your body to break the fall.

I likely stuck out my right arm.

Feeling sick to my stomach, bloody faced, looking at broken pottery shards and a right hand that was in an unnatural position, unmovable, swelling and turning purple, there was an illogical reasoning that somehow, I had to turn back the clock and do it over, because this had turned out all wrong.

My simple shortcut took me to the emergency room, to x-rays and a tetanus shot, to a couple weeks of sugar-tong splints, immobilized elbow-to-knuckles, to short arm casts, to a strange looking mannequin-arm that was eventually freed of the cast and as useful and flexible as a stick of wood.

I surely hadn’t expected that the shortcut would give me a distal radius fracture, a broken wrist.

My friend Kathy was sympathetic, and I think she probably winked when she asked if I was going to do a root-cause analysis of my own accident. Having many weeks to replay that wrong decision gave me plenty of time for it.

I picked the wrong ladder; that was clear. One hand was full, the other hand nothing to hold on to for support.

Most importantly, my mistakes were about risk perception, the why part of going with the wrong ladder.


One, I didn’t anticipate the range of consequences; I recognized only ‘I might fall,’ not ‘I might fall and … break a bone, have to go to the hospital, have to do everything with only one hand,’ or even worse: have a head injury, be disabled, or die. I hadn’t thought of potential outcomes resulting from falls, even those from short distances. The outcome I had expected was that the job would get done, and I would have saved myself the steps, hassle, and two extra minutes of moving a bigger ladder. I hadn’t imagined a very possible outcome of months altered by a broken and mending bone.

Past experience

Two, I hadn’t ever fallen from a ladder before, so it would be unlikely I ever would, right? I’d only had good outcomes on ladders, even tall extension ladders. What could be the big risk with a little step ladder that I use often? My prior experience influenced my expectation that this would be a minor job with no negative outcomes.

Self confidence

Three, I’m usually pretty sure that I know how to do things safely to get a job done. I thought I could be careful and smart enough, even with the short ladder. Had I been a little less confident, I would have chosen the ladder with side rails to hold onto.

These factors affect the way we all perceive risks and the decisions we make to minimize or accept those risks.

Over eight weeks, I learned how frustrating it is to have only one arm and hand that works. I thought about a friend who has farmed his whole life with just one arm; about a friend who fell off a 10-foot step ladder and broke only his ribs (he was lucky); about a woman who told me about her husband’s fatal fall injury.

My fall could have been much worse. But it was also entirely preventable.

How about you?

Does your perception of risk take into account all the possible consequences and outcomes?

Will the shortcut be worth it, or will it take you on a detour you hadn’t planned?

More Information

Stephanie Leonard’s edited version of her own story was published in Iowa Farmer Today.

Cartoon | Rick Friday

Photos | Stephanie Leonard