It was a windy day in western Kansas and Carol Shuetze was in a hurry.
Her husband, Chris, had called. He was planting wheat in rural Gray County and needed help filling the wheat drill. Their daughters, Rachel and Sarah, both volunteered to go help, but Shuetze told them she’d go this time.
So she hurried out the door, slapping on a cap to keep her shoulder-length hair out of her face, and headed to the field.
But in the agriculture industry, being in a hurry, along with not being attentive, isn’t a good mix.
Two years after being scalped by the auger on Oct. 5, 2013, Shuetze still has a spot on her head where her hair won’t grow. She flips her hair back and shows it to the farm groups she talks to, reiterating with all seriousness about what can happen in the blink of an eye.
“I don’t know if I want it to grow back,” she said. “It is a real shocker for these young people to see.”
After all, she said, the incident was scary but it could have been much worse. “I’m fortunate,” she said. “It could have totally scalped me or broke my neck.”
Kansas producers enjoy the independent life of farm and ranch work, the outdoors and the love of the land. But they also work in one of the country’s most dangerous professions.
Tractor rollovers. Grain suffocation. PTO amputations. Goring. There is a long list of incidents that could happen. Farming, after all, involves long hours, dangerous chemicals and heavy machinery, said Serita Blankenship, the Kansas Farm Bureau’s farm safety and ag education manager.
Already this year, at least eight people have died and two have been injured in Kansas farm country, according to the Kansas Farm Bureau compiled incident database.
In Russell County, a farmer was getting grain out of an auger when his right hand got caught and crushed in the machinery, causing him to have three fingers amputated.
In Jackson County, a 76-year-old farmer fell from his tractor and hit his head, causing fatal injuries.
Not all incidents are in the KFB database, Blankenship said. Many go unreported.
Nationwide in 2012, 374 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Tractor overturns were the leading cause of death for these farmers and farm workers.
Meanwhile, every day about 167 workers suffer a lost-work-time injury, the governmental agency reported. “Farm incidents occur for the same reason any other incidents do – being in a hurry or distracted and not taking time to follow basic safety rules,” Serita said. “Machinery doesn’t have a brain or a heart and doesn’t care who you are or what it cuts. It’s up to you to keep your family and yourself safe, so use your brain to protect your body.”
Shuetze said it all happened fast that day as she helped her husband, Chris, fill the wheat drill.
“As I leaned down to put the grain into the far corner of the drill, my hair blew up and my hair got caught in the top shaft of the wheat tender auger.”
She dropped the switch for the auger’s motor and it shut down, but the auger had already stripped back a 5-inch-by-6-inch patch of her scalp. There was no pain and very little bleeding. She never lost consciousness. “It was so quick,” she said. “I could feel it tugging, and I knew what was happening.”
Her husband wrapped her head in a soaking wet towel and packed it with ice to keep the area moist. Her daughter, Sarah, home from college for the weekend, drove her to the hospital in Pratt, where her cousin is in charge of the emergency room.
The ER nurses were standing by to assess the injury and see if the scalp could be reattached there or if Shuetze needed to go to Wichita. The surgeon at Pratt assured her he could do it, and she underwent a two-hour surgery and received 73 stitches.
Two years after the incident, Shuetze’s hair is growing back, except for the three-inch bald spot that is covered by her other locks.
“It was totally my fault,” she said. “I was rushing. I didn’t have my hair tied back, and I got the auger head too close to my head when I bent down. No one else is at fault but me. Split-second errors caused what happened.”
She points out safety precautions during her talks: Don’t hurry. Be aware of the surroundings. Don’t wear bulky clothes. Pull your hair tight against your head. Take off rings.
She has even taken all the strings out of her husband’s hoodies. “It’s the simple little stupid things that can cause a life-threatening accident,” she said.
“Sometimes if you have been around that stuff all your life, you don’t think about it being so high-powered and so high-torqued – you don’t think about it happening to you.”
Another thing people forget about is the strength of the Kansas wind. In western Kansas, the wind is part of the daily routine, she said. “Those simple little things we take for granted. Sometimes we think we are invincible, I guess.”
“I feel blessed that is all it was,” she said of the incident. “This is the first accident that we have ever had. I feel fortunate that it was a nice little wake-up call, that it wasn’t life-threatening.”