Machinery boosts older farmers injury risks

A Canadian study has shown farm injury risks increase with age, especially when it comes to operating heavy machinery and equipment.

A Canadian study has shown farm injury risks increase with age, especially when it comes to operating heavy machinery and equipment.

The average age of farmers in North America is increasing each year. The study concluded older farmers work fewer hours than their younger counterparts but spend more time operating heavy machinery and equipment.

Farmers aged 45 to 64 spend six to eight more days per year than farmers 20 years younger.

The study surveyed 519 farmers aged 65 to 74. These farmers spent a median of 46 hours per week working on the farm—that’s one hour less than famers 40 years their junior. Farmers older than 75 work 34 hours per week.

It was found the amount of weekly hours worked decreased 34 per cent over the lifespan of farmers.

However, older farmers disproportionally retain tasks involving machinery as they age. The proportion of time spent operating machinery increases 40 per cent in older age groups.

The study concluded exposure to potentially dangerous farm equipment didn’t decrease as expected. Older farmers remain relatively active in the workplace and prevention efforts should focus on safe machinery operation.

In addition to the finding older farmers spend more time working with machinery is that the machines they’re using are usually the oldest on the farm.

Since older farmers are using older equipment, the equipment has been named an independent factor related to farm injuries in aging farmers.

Safely driving and operating heavy farm machinery requires accurate sensory input, rapid information processing, reliable judgment and fast motor responses.

As farmers age, skill factors of good driving and machinery operating, including, visual ability, hearing ability, reaction time, muscle strength and joint flexibility, deteriorate.

The onset of dementia and other neurological disorders also increase injury risk potential.

The study also highlighted a challenge faced by older farmers. A reason they may choose machinery operation over more labour-intensive work is because that area is where they see themselves as most productive and capable. However, this choice puts them at a greater risk for injury due to the exposure to the machinery.

Preventative measures mentioned in the study include: all machinery should be in good working condition with regular preventative maintenance, older farmers should check in with others regularly when working long hours, older farmers should avoid low-light situations where hazards could be hard to see, co-workers and family members should watch out for signs of close call such as dents, paint scrapes and damage to property or machinery.

Behavioral signs that may indicate an older farmer is having troubles with machinery could include anxiety or frustration in the operation of equipment, memory troubles or problems balancing multiple tasks and confusion with operational controls.

Laura Nelson, executive director at Alberta Farm Safety Centre, says the study is an interesting report with no easy answers for the problems it mentions. “Farming is exempt from occupational health and safety regulations. Farming is a bit unique,” said Nelson.

However, there are exceptions to that standard. Operations such as greenhouses or mushroom farms are covered, but not primary farms, such as cattle.

Farming is also not covered by workers compensation legislation. Farm workers on traditional farms are the only labour force not covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA).

Nelson said some of the centre’s biggest programs are educational programs visiting school and teaching children about farm and agricultural safety. “I think that the younger generation … they’re not going to accept the iffy things their parents and grandparents did.”

Nelson says the lack of safety is becoming less acceptable within the farming industry. She recalls talking to older farmers who were almost nonchalant about injuries and missing limbs resulting in farm accidents around older machinery.

Younger generation farmers don’t accept the ideals that just because they’re farmers they’re almost guaranteed to lose limbs are acquire damaged hearing or lungs. “I think that whole mindset is more prevalent,” said Nelson.

While awareness and technology has improved, Nelson says a portion of staying safe on the farm comes down to common sense.

“A lot of us, as we get a little older, don’t want to say we’re done for the day, you want to push on.” It’s usually not the intent to make risky decisions, but not every decision is wise.

Pressures of farming also play a factor in the decision-making process. “It’s not an eight to five job. People are under huge amounts of pressure, if there’s a storm coming … that’s their livelihood.”

Don Voaklander, a professor at the University of Alberta Public School of Heath; Lesley Day, researcher at Monash University Accident Research Centre; James Dosman, professor of agricultural medicine at the University of Saskatchewan; Louise Hagel, with the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan; and William Pickett, professor of community health and epidemiology at Queens University, studied 2,751 male Saskatchewan farmers over the age of 25.