Allan (left) and Caleb Orebaugh.

Caleb Orebaugh steered his slow-moving John Deere 4320 straight down the familiar hillside when, suddenly, he felt the weight of the mower start pushing his tractor forward.

“It was during a drought and the ground was dry and hard,” Orebaugh said. “I started sliding and I pushed the brakes, but I didn’t have any traction and kept sliding sideways.”

Orebaugh was losing control.

“When the mower’s tongue caught the rear tire I just hung on.”

Time seemed to slow down as he gripped the steering wheel. The tractor rolled onto its side, stopping when the rollover protection structure (ROPS) hit the ground. 


Orebaugh, 34, had installed it just a few months before the July 2020 incident, becoming the first reported participant in the Wisconsin Rollover Protection Structure (ROPS) Rebate Program to survive a tractor overturn with a ROPS installed through the program.

“I bruised my elbow when it hit the inside of the (sun) canopy, and that was about it,” Orebaugh said.

National data suggest that 1 of every 10 tractor operators overturns a tractor in his or her lifetime. Tractors are the leading cause of death on U.S. farms; the most frequent cause of tractor-related deaths are overturns, nearly 100 per year. Approximately half of U.S. tractors do not have rollover protection.

A ROPS is designed to create a protective zone around the operator. A ROPS, when used with a seatbelt, is 99 percent effective in preventing serious injury or death in the event of an overturn. Even when used without a buckled seatbelt, as was the case with Orebaugh, a ROPS is 70 percent effective.  

Seeking shade

Orebaugh’s father, Allan, heard about the Wisconsin ROPS Rebate Program on the radio. The rebate program, started in 2013 by the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield Clinic Research Institute, was offering rebates of up to $865 toward the cost of purchasing and installing a ROPS. (The National Farm Medicine Center has since made the program more cost-effective by limiting out-of-pocket retrofit expenses to $500, no matter the cost of the retrofit.) All Wisconsin farmers are eligible. The program is funded through philanthropic support from the Auction of Champions and other generous donors.

“When Caleb called me and told me he’d rolled the tractor, I remember feeling very relieved that six months earlier we put that rollover bar on there,” Allan said. “We had farmed that land for two or three years without one.”

The Orebaughs grow about 100 acres of hay and other crops, and raise a few beef cattle. Both work off the farm. This part of Southwest Wisconsin features steep, rolling hillsides, rocky outcrops and deeply carved river valleys, features that escaped the flattening effects of glaciation during the last ice age.

But it wasn’t the hazardous topography that motivated Allan and Caleb. The ROPS retrofit grew out of a simple desire for sun protection.

“We had talked about getting an umbrella,” Caleb said. “But then we thought, ‘no, it would just get snagged on the trees and wrecked,’ so we thought we might as well look for a ROPS with a canopy.”

“And sure enough,” said Allan, thinking about what might have been.

“The funny thing is,” Caleb said, “that’s not even the steepest part of the farm. I’d always thought if I had a rollover it would be somewhere else on the property, not where it happened.”

The ROPS came from Iron Bull Manufacturing in Indiana, a couple hours west of where the Orebaughs used to farm near Muncie, Ind. Caleb was 14 when Allan moved the family from the flat land of the Hoosier State to the Holmen area.

Caleb, a former mechanic, put the ROPS on himself. He rented workspace at the local John Deere implement dealer to do the job, a dealer where had worked for a dozen years. He now works at the nearby John Deere construction equipment dealer.

Did the ROPS save his life?

“I can’t say for sure, but the roll bar definitely stopped it from rolling further.”

The incident

Unknown to Caleb, a spectator watched as he dusted himself off from the rollover.

“One of the neighbors called her mom and said, ‘I think they just rolled a tractor out here,’” said Allan, relaying a conversation the neighbor had shared with him. “‘Is he OK? Yeah I guess so, he is walking away from it.’”

A shaken Caleb made his way downhill to the farm house, where Allan lives, and called Allan at his place of employment.

“I can’t even remember what I was thinking,” Allan said of the call from Caleb. “You’re just trying to figure out what to do first.”

Once he realized his son was OK, the men’s thoughts turned to the functionality of their only tractor.

“We used the skid steer and a jack, and got a neighbor’s tractor and dragged the haybine out of the way and called a tow truck to roll the tractor back upright.” Caleb said.

One of the rear tires had gone flat so they dragged the tractor down to their workshop.

“I felt lucky that I wasn’t under the tractor, and also lucky that I didn’t completely destroy it,” Caleb said. “There wasn’t anything major wrong with it. Snapped the PTO shaft off the tractor, bent the outer PTO shaft on the haybine, had to straighten the exhaust, and put a new sun canopy on. We were able to do all the work ourselves, other than the rear tire.”

A ROPS normally limits the degree of rollover, thereby reducing damage to the tractor, say engineers. Another reason to retrofit.

Caleb waited to tell his wife, Kara, after she got home from work. She took the news in stride, Caleb said, but thinking about his family, he said that he now buckles his seat belt if he is on the “steeper stuff.” The couple has two young children.

Rollovers can happen on flat ground, too

Farms don’t have to be hilly for rollovers to occur, say researchers. It is possible to tip any tractor on flat ground if the turn is short enough and the speed is high enough. Additionally, operators must be alert for ditches, embankments, holes and ramps. Banks of ditches can give way if the tractor is driven too close to the edge.

Most overturns involve the tractor rolling on its side, however tractors also roll over backwards. This can occur when trying to pull out a tree stump, or a piece of equipment stuck in mud. Hitching too high can result in backward tips. For each tractor, consult the operator’s manual for acceptable hitch points.

ROPS are engineered to mount on specific tractor models and designed to operate with the tractor’s mounting brackets and frame. This provides a structure that is flexible, yet rigid enough to withstand the loads produced during a tractor overturn. Prototype ROPS must pass engineered, crush, static, and dynamic tests to assure adequate performance before they are produced for the public. These prototype ROPS must meet the standards set by the Society of Automotive Engineers and the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

If a tractor with a ROPS does overturn, the ROPS should be replaced because it is specifically designed to bend to absorb the energy generated by the tractor contacting the ground, engineers say. ROPS are designed and certified to withstand just a single overturn,

Orebaugh said he is considering replacing his ROPS with another ROPS from the rebate program.

Make the call

If you, your family or hired help operates a tractor without rollover protection, make the call today.

To check on retrofit options for your particular tractor, go to the National ROPS Rebate Program website, or call 1-877-767-7748. Not all states have rebate funds available. When available, funds are applied toward the purchase, shipping and professional installation of the ROPS.

“The process went smoother than I thought,” said Caleb Orebaugh.

Smoother than a ROPS-less overturn.

More Information



It was a surprise in Surprise (Nebraska), but not the welcome kind:  Susan Littlefield’s afternoon chores culminated with a smashed hand.

Littlefield, a veteran farm broadcaster and Network Farm Director for the KVRN Rural Radio Network out of Lexington, is no stranger to doing safety stories, but this time, the story is personal.

Littlefield and her family raise registered Columbia sheep, chickens, and a handful of cattle on their 20-acre farm southeast of Surprise.  During Thanksgiving week 2017, the chores were left to Littlefield and her daughter while her husband and their boys were in Wisconsin deer hunting.

“It was a typical day,” she begins, sharing the experience of a rambunctious steer and her son’s final instructions before he departed on their trip:

Whatever you do, Mom – don’t let the steers out.

That fateful afternoon, Littlefield went to feed steers in a fenced pasture adjacent to the barn and the sheep lot.  The routine path was from a bin, through the ewes’ lot, through two 8-foot panels used as gates to separate the sheep from a lot holding three Jersey steers.

“For some reason, the dogs weren’t with me,” she remembers, referring to her Maremma, Australian Shepherd, and Blue Heeler, the three livestock dogs that always accompany her.

“This time they must have got distracted by a rabbit or a squirrel.

“So I went in, set the two buckets down, and reached back to get the gate.  As I went to grab it, here comes that one steer, running full force.  And he’d gotten out before, so he saw the open gate as an opportunity.  The last time he got out, it took us 45 minutes to get him back in.”

She recalls the cascading thoughts of a split second: “I‘m home by myself, I am not chasing this steer, I don’t have time for this!”

As she pulled the panel closed, the steer’s head crashed into her hand, slamming it and the panel against two T-posts set in the ground.

The blow knocked her to the ground.

He had her in a corner with an electric fence above her – definitely “not the place to be grabbing ahold of!”

What seemed like an eternity with the 1300-pound beef standing on her calf and thigh muscles lasted maybe a minute, she estimates.

She used her arms to protect herself, fearing that he’d start butting her head next.

But then, maybe thanks to the dogs that came running after hearing her scream, or maybe of its own accord, the would-be runagate turned and walked away.

“I got up, dusted myself off and might have said a few choice words, and I finished feeding,” she remembers, before going in to ice her hand to control the pain.

“It’s funny, the things that go through your mind in the moment,” she explains.  Littlefield, who’s also a rural firefighter and EMT, wondered if her daughter would come home to find her there on the ground, and if she’d have to call 911 to have her own colleagues come get her.

Afterwards, “I sat out under the windmill and thought, ‘How stupid…why? Why didn’t I just let him out?  Why did I think I had to close that gate?”  …because the other  gate was already closed. 

After the fact, you think about that, but you don’t think of it during that time.”

Littlefield tried to ignore her pain, figuring the injury was ‘just a sprain.’  But two weeks later, she had shooting pains up her arm and was unable to write.  At that point, she went to the doctor, who initially suspected a sprain – until he reviewed the X-rays that revealed thumb fractures.  He sent her to an orthopedic surgeon.

By Christmas, she had a cast from the tip of her thumb to just below the elbow.  She went through two cast changes, followed by a month in a splint and physical therapy.

But pain that was, at times, astronomical just didn’t dissipate, and her hand kept swelling.

In late March, she underwent surgery to remove the crushed basal joint and restore thumb mobility, using a tendon graft taken from her forearm to substitute for the damaged joint and torn ligament.

In typically stoic farmer fashion, she tried to downplay her injury down to herself and others.  She missed just a day of work – for surgery – and was able to keep her cast off camera until she had a morning TV gig at a different studio and didn’t realize the camera had a shot of her casted arm resting on the counter.

“Before I got off the air, my phone was buzzing… people messaging me, ‘what did you do, why are you in a cast?’”  It forced her to come clean about what happened.

But playing down her injury as ‘just a livestock injury’ or ‘a small injury’ didn’t work with livestock producers who set her straight about the other possible outcomes:

“’You could’ve lost your hand … or your life.’”

A year later, she continues work to improve mobility, but won’t regain the level of function prior to her injury.  She works to touch her thumb to her pinky, and she can’t write for extended periods.  Opening a jar with the right hand is impossible without the hard base of a thumb joint.

Littlefield understands how easy it is to become complacent again, now that she’s had a year continuing chores without further mishaps, and she emphasizes how important it is to make changes to ensure the occurrence and opportunities for injuries don’t recur.

She jokes that ‘the other guy’ ended up in a body bag in a deputy’s freezer, referring to the steer – in butcher’s paper – going to the local deputy shortly after her husband returned from hunting.  She and her husband didn’t accept the risk of her kids being hurt by the steer, knowing their injuries would likely be worse than hers.

She changed the feeding routine, now using a different gate at the other end of the lot, one that closes automatically.

“And I make sure the dogs, at least one of the dogs, is with me at all times,” she adds.

A good rule of thumb.

More Information

Littlefield’s Australian shepherd is one of the dogs that rarely leaves her side.

An edited version of David’s story was published in Iowa Farmer Today.

Story | Stephanie Leonard

Photos | Risto Rautiainen, S Leonard

Video | R Rautiainen



Leon Sheets of Ionia, Iowa vividly recalls the September 15, 2014 flash fire in his swine finishing building.

He had emptied the four rooms in his 1200-head finishing barn and had washed down two of them earlier in the day. Before leaving the building, he decided to give the floor of his “work room” – an 8’x40’ maintenance room in the center of the building that housed supplies, equipment, and utilities, including an LP heater – a quick rinse off.

Leon was aware that manure in one of the four pits beneath this building had a foaming issue (the other three pits did not). The pit with foaming manure was in the finishing room next to his work room, and spanned partially under the slatted floor of the work room.

“About 90 seconds” after starting to rinse off the floor with his cold water electric washer, Sheets said, he heard “a WHOOM and a BOOM.”

He was engulfed by a fire ball that burned 20 percent of his body, including his arms, hands, and face, and melted his glasses.

He was able to get out of the building – the closed door to the work room was blown off in the explosion – and shut off the building’s breakers, gas line, and generator before calling 911.

The fire destroyed the building. Sheets spent nearly three weeks in the hospital, part of which time involved surgery and skin grafts to repair second- and third-degree burns.

The cause of the flash fire was methane gas that was released into the air when water spray broke the foam bubbles 1½ feet below the slatted floor. The LP heater in the room hadn’t cycled on, but its open pilot light provided the ignition source when methane concentration rapidly reached the lower explosive limit concentration in the closed room.

Although he was aware of prior flash fires and explosions caused by sudden release of methane during pit agitation, in retrospect, he is quick to explain that pressure washing in a poorly ventilated room with foaming manure and an ignition source was unsafe.

Leon Sheets considers himself an extremely lucky man. Rather than dampening his enthusiasm about being a pig farmer, the experience galvanized a passion for promoting safety in the industry.

Sheets – who was selected as the National Pork Board’s America’s Pig Farmer of the Year for 2017 – urges all producers and employees to be acutely aware of the potential for pressure washing to release methane gas trapped in a layer of manure foam.

He now practices and stresses taking these precautions prior to pressure washing:

  • making sure all doors, windows, and curtains are open with fans running for maximum ventilation to dissipate gases;
  • assuring that all heaters, pilot lights, and automated feeding systems are turned off, to eliminate all potential ignition sources;
  • maintaining a lower level of manure depth in a pit where foaming phenomenon is observed.

He advises producers to check manure regularly – and by that, he means every day – for evidence of foaming or an increase in foam depth.

When the explosion occurred in his building, foam was about a foot deep and liquid slurry was a few feet below the slats – not at floor level or overflowing.

Sheets urges other producers to consider safety for younger or less experienced workers on their farms – because they are the ones who typically get the pressure washing assignment. They need to know the risks, he stresses, and producers and managers must do everything they can to minimize those risks.

More Information

An edited version of Leon’s story was previously published in Iowa Farmer Today.

Story | Stephanie Leonard

Photos | courtesy of the Rochester Post Bulletin (banner photo), the National Pork Board (fire photos), S Leonard (Leon and Barb)

Video | courtesy of Daniel Andersen, Iowa State University



Mike Biadasz, a passionate young farmer from Amherst, WI, died on August 15, 2016 when he was overcome by hydrogen sulfide gas. Mike had been agitating manure in the open lagoon at his family’s cattle feeding operation. The gas also killed sixteen cattle near the lagoon.

Taking a stand for farm safety

 It was at the funeral home, preparing to bury their only son, that the Biadasz family became farm safety advocates. In lieu of flowers they decided to invite donations to a farm safety fund.

Call it coping, call it heroic – they were determined to prevent another family from enduring such pain.

The Biadasz family continues to inspire and mobilize those who love farming and who share grief over the death of Mike Biadasz – son and brother, friend to so many. Through their safety workshops, fundraising events and media outreach, this family from Amherst, Wis., is living proof of the power of a story.

On July 28, 2017, just short of the one-year anniversary of his passing, the Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Memorial Fund presented a $40,000 check to the National Farm Medicine Center and Marshfield Clinic Center for Community Outreach.

The money is being used to establish a rebate program for farmers who rent portable gas monitors.

August 15, 2016

Mike, a 29-year old beef farmer, had gone out in the pre-dawn to agitate an open manure pit in preparation for pumping later that morning. Mike approached the task with his usual enthusiasm, taking a picture and posting it to Snapchat, referencing the “liquid gold” he was about to stir up. When the crust atop the pit broke open, hydrogen sulfide gas was released. Normally the toxic gas would quickly dissipate. But the air was completely still that morning, and a heavy layer of fog blanketed the farm. The sudden release of heavier-than-air hydrogen sulfide overcame Mike immediately. He fell back onto the concrete apron of the pit, where friend and farm employee Steve Burclaw found him two hours later. Thirteen cattle lay dead nearby, also overcome by the gas.

Bob Biadasz, Mike’s dad, was inside the house drinking coffee when he received the call from Burclaw, telling him that his son, business partner and fourth-generation legacy was dead.

Bob recalled arriving at Mike’s side.

“I felt like I was holding the end of the world in my hands.”

The Biadasz’ knew that hydrogen sulfide was deadly in confined spaces, but they had never heard it could kill in the open air. Such cases are exceedingly rare, which is why the incident made national news. It is possible that the temperature inversion and zero wind velocity suppressed air mixing, leading to an accumulation of lethal concentrations of hydrogen sulfide at ground level as agitation occurred, according to reports published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and the Journal of Agromedicine.

Mike had a saying, recalled Bob Biadasz: Live today like you are going to die tomorrow. But farm today like you are going to farm forever.

“I never knew how much those words could mean.”

Loved farming

If Mike Biadasz wasn’t farming he was thinking about farming. “Since he was little that’s all he wanted to do,” said Bob. “Morning to night, he loved what he did.”

Bob and Diane Biadasz offer a visitor a soft drink and pull out Mike’s high school senior portrait. He’s posed on a rug, surrounded by Case IH model tractors and implements.

Another picture, then another: Mike at his sister Megan’s wedding; playing with his sister Lisa’s kids. The stories flow.

“Mikey had such a passion for farming,” said Bob. “We remember when he said to us, ‘I may not have a wife and kids, but I sure love trying to feed the ones who do!’”

Mike took some classes at community colleges, but he already knew how he wanted to farm. He worked hard, had fun, innovated, and freely shared results with other farmers.

“I didn’t realize he had as many friends as he did,” said Diane, reflecting on the support her family received. In the months after Mike’s death, visitors stopped by with food or called to offer condolences. Others who’d heard the story approached them in public, asking how they could donate to the safety fund.

As the 30th anniversary of Mike’s birth approached, sister Lisa decided to throw an all-day “30th Birthday Bash” and fundraiser March 18 at the Rosholt Fairgrounds. And what a party it was.

The next chapter

Mike’s story has raised tens of thousands of dollars as well as the safety consciousness of an industry. Gas monitor manufacturers, manure haulers, academics, industrial hygienists, Extension safety professionals, news media, politicians and farmers have rallied around the Biadasz Family’s farm safety efforts. On a beautiful day in April, when farmers want to be working in the fields, 80 attendees packed a restaurant dining room in Plover, Wis., to attend a manure gas safety seminar.

“Mike’s family has taken the tragic inertia of his death so that others may live,” said Casper Bendixsen, Ph.D., a research scientist with the National Farm Medicine Center and Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.

“Their gift to start the Wisconsin gas monitor rebate program is fantastic, but it is more than dollars. It is about telling Mike’s story, and farmers looking out for other farmers.”

The family wishes it could turn back the clock. They wish they had known that this could happen in an open air pit. Although the weather conditions played a key role in the tragedy, as did the amount of sulfur in the distiller’s syrup used in the cattle feed, Lisa cautions against calling it a fluke accident.

“Even without that atmospheric cap, it could happen again to someone else,” she said. “Hydrogen sulfide is so highly toxic.”

A wooden cross engraved with Mike’s name stands at the edge of the manure pit, just steps from where he fell. On August 15, declared “Mike Biadasz Day” in Wisconsin, Lisa organized a short prayer ceremony and balloon release on this spot, with friends and family.

“We miss Mike so very much,” Lisa said. “Words can’t describe how hard this year has been.”

Bob is 64 and in good health, but the future of the fourth-generation Biadasz Farm weighs heavy. He has become a tireless safety advocate, never hesitating to step in front of a microphone or attend a meeting if he thinks he can help another family avoid what his family lives with every day. But it’s tough.

“I actually look forward to the harvest,” he said, “when we’re going 110 miles an hour and there is no time to think.”

More Information

The gas monitor rebate program is currently being piloted in Wisconsin, and all Wisconsin farmers are eligible.  If successful, the family hopes to expand the program into other states.

To learn more or apply for this rebate, visit or contact

To support the Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Memorial Fund, gifts can be made to the Community Foundation of Central Wisconsin. Gifts are tax deductible and can be made online at or mailed to 1501 Clark Street, Stevens Point, WI 54481.

Story | Scott Heiberger

Photos | Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Fund, Lisa Grezenski, National Farm Medicine Center, Stephanie Leonard

Video | Marshfield Clinic Health System, National Farm Medicine Center


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