Professor Robert Aherin joined the faculty of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in 1984. Aherin’s research focus is in Agricultural Safety and Health and his contributions to the department and the agricultural community have been significant.
Most recently, Aherin has worked to establish a minor in the area of Agricultural Safety and Health for undergraduates. He developed two 400 level courses, each three credit hours, one dealing with the principals of injury issues and causation in agriculture. In the fall of 2009, the first ABE students were able to declare this minor and apply for trainee-ships that provide supplemental funding per credit hour for undergraduates and monthly stipends for graduate students.
“We surveyed 300 agricultural and rural health employers in the Midwest,” said Aherin, “and approximately 80 percent said they desired to have employees with academic training in this area. So there’s a real need for students to understand the issues related to ag safety and health and how to address them effectively.”
Aherin’s appointment as an Extension specialist has given him considerable experience in this area. “Our whole focus is to try and understand the agricultural injury and illness risk associated with the agricultural population in Illinois,” he said.
Ag safety is a very complex issue, Aherin noted. “Whether we are developing training or education policies, studying basic design principles to improve or enhance equipment safety, or trying to understand the behaviors and motivations that make people do what they do, we have to draw upon different kinds of expertise from the areas of education, engineering, health sciences and the social sciences to address those issues.”
Two projects that highlight Aherin’s Extension involvement in ag safety include FARM (Fewer Accidents with Reflective Materials) and AgrAbility, a program for disabled farmers.
“The FARM kit was developed with an industry group to encourage farmers to put reflective material on their equipment to enhance visibility,” said Aherin. “Initially, about 12,000 kits were sold in the state, but there are approximately 750,000 pieces of farm equipment in Illinois moving on public roadways. When we realized that we weren’t having the impact we desired, we went to work with the state legislative committee of the Farm Bureau to pass a law that requires farmers to put SMV (slow-moving vehicle) emblems on new equipment that are visible at 1000 feet, compared to the older ones, which were only visible at 400 feet.”
This new law was passed by the state legislature and today all farm equipment that is transported on public roadways in Illinois must have this newer designed SMV emblem. Illinois is the only state to have this requirement, but many others are considering implementing this model legislation.
The second project, AgrAbility, is a national program that promotes independence and productivity for farmers who have experienced a disabling illness, disease or accident. Aherin has been the program director since it’s inception in the early 90’s at the University.
“Injury and illness are important issues,” said Aherin, “and we also have a 'graying' population on the farm, so AgrAbility addresses age-related issues as well. We want to do everything we can to help all farmers be as efficient and effective on their farms as possible."
Aherin said his role has evolved over the thirty years he has been an agricultural safety and health professional.
“Today my work mostly involves ‘training the trainers,’” he concluded, “especially in Extension. I work with the people who serve the ag population – health care workers, various state organizations and agencies, farm bureaus. I try to help them understand ag safety and health issues so they can be better prepared to take that information back to the ag community.”
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