A new study released this month by the University of Alberta in Canada finds that older farmers who spend a higher percentage of their time operating heavy machinery may have a higher risk of serious injury.
The study, published in the November issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, found that as farmers age, they turn to less physically strenuous work such as operating machinery. Farmers aged 45 to 64 years spent six to eight more days a year operating tractors and combines than farmers 20 years their junior—a situation that puts older farmers at risk, say the study authors. The study was based on a survey of 2,751 farmers in Saskatchewan, the Canadian province that borders North Dakota and Montana.
"Falls are the most common cause of injury to senior farmers," says Michael "Frey" Freyaldenhoven, extension AgrAbility Program Technician for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. "Falling from heavy machinery is a very common farm injury."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 551 people in agriculture, forestry and fishing suffered fatal work injuries in 2009, the latest figures available. Most of those deaths, 278, occurred in crop production.
Farm tractors accounted for 2,165 fatal occupational injuries during 1992-2001 and were the leading source of these deaths in agriculture, forestry and fishing, the CDC says. Trucks and fishing boats were also major sources of death and accounted for 795 and 434 fatal occupational injuries, respectively. During 1992-1997, machinery caused 1,021 fatal occupational injuries and was the leading cause of these deaths in agriculture, forestry and fishing as reported on death certificates. The next leading causes of these deaths were motor vehicles, with 624 fatalities, and falls, 235 fatalities.
Factors that influence safety for older farmers include hearing, vision, balance, strength and flexibility.
"Everyone who lives long enough is going to experience some degree of hearing loss," Freyaldenhoven says. "The ability to hear is an important part of farm safety." He adds that vision is also important, as it age affects human ability to recognize objects and focus clearly by adapting to different light levels.
"By age 60 the light needed to see clearly is doubled that required by a 45-year-old's," Freyaldenhoven says.
Balance, strength and flexibility affect daily tasks, such as getting on an off a tractor. Older farmers, Freyaldenhoven notes, may find it hard to look behind them and check for hazards. Freyaldenhoven adds that a major cause of falls, especially among senior farmers, is a lack of balance.
"Balance is controlled by a portion of the inner ear, that helps the brain control balance," he said. "As one ages, ear structure deteriorates."
Lead author of the study, Don Voaklander, a professor in the School of Public Health and director of the Alberta center for Injury Control and Research, said, "It's important for farmers, especially those from farm families where the older 60-plus crowd is still working, to understand that operating machinery is still a high-risk activity."
The University of Alberta Study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canadian Center for Health and Safety in Agriculture.
AgrAbility is a national project funded through the USDA that helps provide education and assistance to farmers and agricultural workers who are restricted in their ability to be successful in production agriculture because of a limiting health condition. Health conditions can be work related or non-work related, permanent or temporary, or related to an accident or chronic disease.
Freyaldenhoven notes several steps farmers and their families can take to avoid accidents:
Increase light levels in barns and shops
Equip stairs and steps with hand rails
Ensure all corrals and animal confinement areas are secure and equipped with escape routes
Use hearing protection
Limit hazardous tasks to daylight hours where light is the brightest
Limit tractor operation to daylight hours
Equip tractors with rollover protection structures and seat belts
Refrain from operating machinery or tractors while under the influence of medications which may have side effects that limit reaction time and sense of balance