Lessons learned: Butler County farmer has close call accident

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guy sitting in oats
Kriss Simmons, of Butler, Pennsylvania, sits in the bin of his combine to catch his breath after his pants became caught on the auger as he tried to even out the load of oats.

You know how to operate all of the equipment on your farm. What about your spouse? Or your children? Or the family member that comes over to help occasionally? Is the key, fuel shut-off valve or throttle clearly marked? Is it obvious where it’s located and how it works?

It took a close call for Kriss Simmons, of Butler, Pennsylvania, to realize that the answer to those questions was a resounding no.

Simmons had an accident on his farm, July 14. He was spreading oats in the bin of his combine, trying to even out the load to get a little more in before calling it a night, when a jagged piece of metal on the auger caught his pant leg.

Luckily, his wife, Wendy, was nearby to hear him screaming for help, but she struggled to figure out how to shut the machine off. She found the key in time, and Simmons walked away from the experience, but he wanted to share his experience with others, in case it helps another farm family avoid catastrophe.

“It’s just something I never thought of until this happened,” he said. “You just get in a tractor, and there’s so many levers. If you’re in a hurry or don’t know what you’re looking for, you could cause more injury by hitting the wrong lever.”

Sucked in

It was a typical summer night the day of the accident. Kriss and Wendy worked during the day. Their two daughters were at 4-H camp.

Simmons’ day job is in trucking. He had been hoping all week he’d get off early to get some oats off. He raises beef cattle and enough crops on his family’s farm to feed them throughout the year. Finally, that Wednesday, he had enough time to get out in the field.

Because the girls were gone for the week, Wendy was at the barn helping with farm work that night. She was unloading a dump truck full of hay bales into the barn. Usually on summer weeknights, she’s at their house over the hill from the farm, helping the girls work with the sheep they’re raising for 4-H.

After Kriss started harvesting, he realized he wasn’t going to have time for more than one bin. Already pinched for time on a weeknight, he didn’t want to go through the hassle of getting the auger out to unload it all, then put everything away afterward. He figured he would leave it on the combine in the barn overnight.

He was about to make his last round when he saw the bin on the combine was full. On his machine, a 1975 Gleaner K, this doesn’t always mean the bin is actually full.

“Someone cut part of the auger off that carries grain off the bin, so the bin never completely fills like it should,” he said. He shut off the header, idled the combine down and climbed up in the bin to move the oats around to even them out.

“I must have thought because the header was off that the combine was off,” he said. “A lot of time you do things, you don’t even realize what you’re doing. It’s automatic.”

He started to move the oats around with his feet, not realizing the auger was still moving. The shaft was obscured by the oats. Just as he realized what he’d done, a jagged piece of metal on the auger grabbed his pant leg.

“It sucked me in right away,” he said. “I knew as soon as that got a hold of me I was in trouble.”

“Shut it off”

He started yelling for his wife. She was about 200 feet away in the barn when she heard him screaming. She ran up to the combine and heard Kriss saying, “shut it off!”

“I was just panicked,” Wendy said. “I was trying to look everywhere. My eyes were going every different direction, trying to find something to shut it off.”

ripped pants
Kriss Simmons holds up the jeans he was wearing when the auger in the bin of his combine grabbed his pant leg. The jeans ripped from beng wrapped around the shaft. (submitted)

The key and other controls for the Gleaner K are under the right armrest. They’re not in an obvious place. Kriss said you can see it at eye level as you climb in, but it would be hard to find if you didn’t know where to look.

Kriss tried to free his jeans from the auger. The clutch started to slip, and he was able to grab the shaft to hold it to keep it from winding his leg in any further. Wendy found the key and shut it off. By that time, Kriss’s left pant leg was ripped in half and wrapped almost entirely around the shaft.

He was exhausted, and had some bruising on his leg from where the pants constricted around it, but otherwise he was fine. He went back to work and continued harvesting the next day.

“I’m just very lucky that the shaft started jumping, and Wendy was that close. A lot of times I’m over there by myself,” he said.

Lessons learned

Looking back, Kriss can see where things went wrong. Yes, of course he should have made sure the combine was turned off before getting in the bin. Yes, he should have been able to tell his wife how to shut it off.

But accidents happen. People make mistakes. In the moment, it can be hard to calmly explain to a person step-by-step how to do something.

“It can happen to the safest person,” he said. “All you need is one scenario you didn’t see or aren’t thinking about.”

More than anything, Kriss knows now that he needs to train the rest of his family how to operate all the equipment on the farm. While the key and fuel shut-off are in the same place on a few tractors, there’s one on their farm that is set up differently.

Wendy has run tractors before, but had never run the combine. She also suggested having things labeled more clearly in the equipment, so a lay person or passerby could figure it out.

Kriss used to work on a dairy farm where people would come in to help make hay.

“If you have people helping you, whether they’re involved in operating equipment or not, they need to know how to shut it off in case things happen,” he said. “They need to know the basics of how things work. It’s just something I never thought of until this happened.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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