Aherin retires after notable career in Agricultural Safety and Health

January 27, 2020

Dr. Robert Aherin, Professor and Extension Agricultural Safety Specialist, retired after 35 years with the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Aherin joined the faculty of ABE in 1984, and he has been an Adjunct Professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois Chicago, since 1991.

Aherin’s teaching, research, and outreach has been in Agricultural Safety and Health, and his contributions to the department and the agricultural community have been significant.

In 2008, Aherin began work to establish a minor in the area of Agricultural Safety and Health for undergraduates. He has developed three 400-level courses, each three credit hours. The courses deal with agricultural injury issues and intervention; agricultural illness and disease; and agricultural safety and health risks. 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. Graduate students are able to take nine to twelve hours of courses to obtain a specialization in agricultural safety and health.

Three projects that highlight Aherin’s Extension involvement in agricultural safety and health are FARM (Fewer Accidents with Reflective Materials), AgrAbility, a program for disabled farmers, and the Grain Handling Safety Coalition, a consortium of public and private organizations who work together to reduce or prevent grain bin accidents and fatalities through education and outreach.

The FARM kit was developed with an industry group to encourage farmers to put reflective material on their equipment to enhance visibility. Aherin’s team worked 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. The 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.

The second project, AgrAbility, is a national program that promotes independence and productivity for farmers who have experienced a disabling illness, disease or accident.  Because there is a 'graying' population on the farm, AgrAbility addresses age-related issues as well.  Aherin has been the program director since its inception in the early 90’s at the University. With the support of the college’s Director of Extension and Outreach, there is currently a directive to launch a major fundraising effort to support the AgrAbility Program.

The third project is the Grain Handling Safety Coalition, which Aherin helped co-found in 2011. Aherin and others founded the coalition after the summer of 2010, when seven people died in grain bin engulfments in the Midwest over a three-week period. The coalition has more than fifteen members from organizations such as OSHA, NIOSH, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture as well as the Universities of Illinois, Iowa, and Purdue. Recently, the National Grain and Feed Association became a member. Since its inception, the coalition has applied for and received almost one million dollars in funds to develop the program.

Aherin earned both his bachelor’s degree in agriculture and his master’s degree in industrial technology (with a specialization in occupational safety and health) from Illinois State. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in agricultural education from the University of Minnesota in 1987. In 2017, he was honored by his alma mater when he was inducted into the Illinois State University’s College of Applied Sciences and Technology Hall of Fame.

Aherin held many national leadership positions, including past president of the International Society of Agricultural Safety and Health, and chair of the Ergonomics, Safety and Health Division of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

He has authored over 100 peer-reviewed professional papers and training materials. He has been the project investigator or director on projects totaling more than $10 million.

In his role as an agricultural safety and health professional, Aherin understood the need to help all producers be as efficient and effective on their farms as possible. He worked diligently with the agricultural population and those who served them, such as health care workers, various state organizations and agencies, and farm bureaus, to help them understand the root causes of agricultural injuries and illnesses and the impact of risk reduction interventions.

Aherin said, “My goal has always been to ensure the safety of the priceless lives involved in the successful operation of a farm or business. Their product has great value, but nothing is more valuable than the lives of family, friends, and neighbors.”