After Injury, Farmer-Turned-Researcher Teaches About Agriculture
By Robert Holly
Robert “Chip” Petrea was trying to feed damp yellow hay into a red baler on a wet Sunday afternoon in 1978, but the machine refused to pick it up.
Petrea was working in a low-lying field that frequently flooded. A storm was headed toward the 89-acre dairy farm located just outside Iuka in south-central Illinois, and he knew that the already soggy hay would be ruined by the coming rain if he could not find a way to get it to bale.
Baling hay requires using a tractor to pull a machine the size of a small car over thin rows of hay on the ground called wind rows. Hay goes through the throat of the baler and is compressed into round or rectangular bundles.
The round-style baler Petrea was using needed to pick up a small amount of hay before it could start baling properly, and that was where he was having trouble.
Petrea, then 25 years old, knew he had to hurry.
He got off the tractor and faced the baler. He took a few steps back so he was about 3 feet away from the machine and its sharp pickup fingers and counter-rotating pressure rollers. He sat on top of the long row of hay he was working with, which dampness had tightly pressed together like a rope. He pushed clumps of hay into the jaws of the machine with his legs.
The baler began picking up the hay.
The row he was sitting on was yanked into the baler.
Before he could roll aside, Petrea was also yanked in.
The baler pulled him deeper through its throat as the sharp pickup fingers clawed at his back and buttocks.
More than 35 years later, Petrea remembers every detail as he sits in his office in the Agriculture Engineering Sciences Building at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where he is a principal research specialist with a focus on agriculture safety and health.
Since he earned his master’s degree from the University in 1989 and Ph.D. in 1997, Petrea has led a W.K. Kellogg Foundation community development program and has evaluated the national Teaching Ag Safety to Kids program. He has studied underlying occupational behaviors that lead to injury and has worked with the Illinois AgrAbility Unlimited program for disabled farmers.
Today, Petrea uses his experience and his research to prevent other farmers from getting injured – and to help the ones who do get injured adapt.
The injury rate for agricultural workers is higher than nearly all other occupations.
Chip Petrea works in his office at the Agriculture Engineering and Sciences Building at the University of Illinois campus. Petrea currently serves as a principal research specialist with a focus on agricultural safety and health. (Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting)
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the injury rate for agricultural workers was more than five injuries for every 100 workers, while the rate for all workers is about three injuries per 100 workers.
The agricultural rate is even higher when adjusted to focus on agricultural laborers who work specifically in animal production.
Each day on average, 243 U.S. agricultural workers suffer injuries severe enough to miss work, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health program. Of those 243 workers, about a dozen suffer life-changing injuries that leave them permanently disabled and unlikely to ever return to work.
While struggling to free himself from the baler in 1978, Petrea was not thinking about statistics.
Only his right foot was pulled into the machine at first. Petrea tried to free it, but the metal toe of his boot was lodged behind the two massive pressure rollers. He could not turn off the baler from his position. It violently jerked, causing his left foot to become trapped. The pressure rollers forced Petrea feet-first through the baler like a piece of paper being fed through a copier.
Petrea wrapped his right arm around a horizontal bar attached to the baler. The move kept his upper body away from the crushing pressure rollers. He hugged that bar for more than an hour. The hay baler continued to run.
Petrea’s stepfather, Bob Petrea, was the first to find him, coming to check on his stepson as he routinely did when his kids were working in the field.
“He was looking up at me and told me, ‘Help me,’” Petrea’s stepfather said.
Bob turned off the baler and rushed to the nearest neighbor’s telephone. He notified Petrea’s mother, Vivian Petrea. She called the Iuka Fire Department.
The 89-acre Petrea family dairy farm is located on the outskirts of Iuka, Ill. Growing up on the farm, Chip Petrea had to bale hay, milk cows and move grain. In addition to those chores and schoolwork, Petrea was also the starting center on his basketball team. Petrea's stepfather, Bob, first started the dairy farm with only a couple milk cows. (Photo provided by Chip Petrea)
When the fire department reached Petrea, he had drifted in and out of consciousness several times, but was mostly awake. He listened as volunteer rescuers said there was nothing they could do. They could not get him out.
“His face was definitely showing severe pain,” Bob said.
The rescuers called for a second fire department from Salem, Ill. More rescuers arrived, but it was Petrea’s older brother – Dick Petrea – who came with the family’s cutting torch. He used it to slice through the pieces of the baler trapping his brother.
Sparks and hot metal flew on Petrea and on the hay. Bob went to a farmhouse and pumped cold water into a bucket. Rescuers periodically threw water on Petrea’s body to prevent him from catching on fire.
Petrea’s mother watched. She remembers thinking that there was very little blood.
“You’re just frantic, and you’re a blank because we didn’t know the extent of what his injuries were at that point at all,” Vivian said.
Once he was freed, an ambulance rushed Petrea to a hospital in Salem. When he arrived, the attending physician assessed his injuries and transferred him to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Doctors explained that heat and pressure from the baler caused Petrea’s wounds to rapidly coagulate, keeping him from bleeding to death.
When he arrived at Barnes Hospital, staff prepped Petrea for surgery and set up a green-colored screen halfway up his thighs. They thought he would panic if he saw his mangled legs. Petrea was worried about the pair of Red-Wing boots he was wearing more. He watched a nurse take them away as anesthetic began to take effect.
He wondered if he would see the Red-Wings again.
“It pissed me off because – either somebody threw them away or they took them – but I never saw them again,” Petrea said.
When the anesthetic wore off, Petrea learned that he had lost much more than his boots. Doctors had performed double above-the-knee amputations.
“Soon as I got aware enough, I knew I was lying down,” Petrea said. “I tried to get up, and I couldn’t. The doctor was sitting there and he said, ‘Whoa, whoa.’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Well, I guess you’re going to have to take my legs off.’ He said, ‘We already did.’”
Still, the medical battle to keep Petrea alive did not end with the amputations.
The baler’s pick-up fingers severely sliced Petrea’s buttocks, repeatedly grinding dirt and hay into deep gashes. His leg wounds stabilized, but Petrea contracted an infection from the lacerations.
"Soon as I got aware enough, I knew I was lying down," Petrea said. "I tried to get up, and I couldn't."
“That’s what actually almost killed me,” Petrea said. “Those [lacerations] were infected – as opposed to the amputation, which they said really wasn’t a big deal. Whacking off a couple legs, medically speaking, isn’t a big deal.”
In the intensive care unit, Petrea received frequent visits from family and friends. Some traveled from as far away as Texas to see him.
“We had the whole waiting room full of relatives and friends,” Vivian said.
Petrea’s wife Susan stayed in his hospital room.
“I went over with him in the ambulance, and then I just stayed there for two weeks,” said Susan. “For a little while, I slept out in the waiting room, and then I slept on the foot of his bed. A couple nights I slept underneath his bed.”
Chip Petrea is shown sitting outside near his wife, Susan, and their son, Tiras. Petrea met Susan during his senior year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Photo provided by Chip Petrea)
Susan and Petrea met during the fall semester of his senior year at the University of Illinois in 1975. They were both pursuing bachelor’s degrees in The College of Agriculture. Petrea loved how she sometimes jumped up and down in a circle when things got slow just because she needed to keep moving.
To read more on the dangers of farming, also see the series: "Matter of Seconds: Injury and death on America's farms"
They married the following summer, and have had three children together during their more than 35-year marriage. At the time of Petrea’s injury, they had an infant son named Tiras.
When Petrea eventually came home from the hospital, Susan said it was frustrating for him to not be able to immediately help complete some of the chores he had always helped with, such as milking the cows or moving grain. She remembered one instance where the sliding barn door fell off its track. From the house, Petrea could see that the door was uneven. He could do nothing about it.
“Back then, he said he felt what it was like to be old,” Susan said.
She refused to give in to self-pity.
“It was going to be different, but that didn’t necessarily mean worse, or bad or over,” said Susan. “It just means different.”
After a week in the intensive care unit at Barnes Hospital, the infection subsided. Petrea began physical rehabilitation and started to learn how to use a wheelchair.
Physical therapists assigned him strengthening exercises. They handed him medicine balls to throw and had him pick himself up off the floor. One time early in his rehab program, two young physical therapy students took Petrea over to a bathtub. They asked him to attempt getting in and out of the bathtub without assistance.
“I just locked my chair, positioned myself on the side, went down and touched the bottom of the tub and got back in my chair,” Petrea said. “I said, ‘So, is that kind of what you wanted me to do?’”
When rehab bored Petrea, he climbed up and down a rope hanging from the ceiling.
“He was always a climber,” his mother said.
Years of working on his family’s dairy farm had strengthened his muscles and broadened his shoulders. Milking cows every morning and afternoon since grade school had caused his forearms to bulge.
Petrea said he approached rehab like a tedious farm chore that he needed to finish before moving on with his day. Farming had given him a foundation built on hard work and physical activity. Working on a farm led to Petrea’s injury, but in many ways it also gave him a natural ability to recover.
“I certainly had an easier road in the wheelchair than somebody who didn’t have that background,” Petrea said.
Petrea got to the hospital in September. He left in late November.
With support from Susan, family and neighbors, Petrea started farming again less than a year removed from the amputations. He learned to save his energy for when he needed it. The Petrea farm had an old motorized tricycle that allowed him to move throughout the property without assistance. Riding on the trike, Petrea could weed-whack underneath fences or seed hay fields. In time, he learned to rig other farm equipment to suit his needs, such as installing hand controls in the cabin of a combine in place of foot pedals.
“In my mind, it was, ‘OK, I had been farming before, so why can’t I farm after?’ So, I just did what I needed to do,” Petrea said.
He now gives injured farmers the same message as an ag-safety researcher.
Petrea recently appeared in a farm safety video called “A Second Chance.” In the video, Petrea said all farmers are given a lot more chances than they are aware of. He can easily think back to countless instances where he should have suffered a worse fate than losing his legs. To save time, he would climb on the outside rings of a silo instead of safely using the ladder and then scuffling around. He now realizes that he could have easily fallen.
“There were so many things after we got hurt, looking back on it, where we could have gotten hurt worse or got killed,” Petrea said.
Petrea said there are ways the agriculture industry can improve. Farmers are more careful today than they were in 1978. Manufacturers will continue to improve their hay balers and tractors. Many injuries and deaths occur on family-operated farms with fewer than 11 total employees, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not thoroughly regulate. Perhaps, Petrea said, increased regulation on these small-scale farms would help eliminate unsafe farming practices.
Still, most farmers will try to keep farming, regardless of injury, he said. Petrea recently advised a 70-year-old man who slipped off a feed bin and fractured his neck. The man is now a low-level quadriplegic. He is in the process of modifying his combine. He still wants to farm.
“As far as people continuing on, farmers farm because they want to,” Petrea said.