By Marion Barnes, County Extension Agent Clemson University
At a time when many seniors are thinking about cashing in on Social Security or retirement accounts, senior farmers are looking forward to 10 or perhaps 20 more years of productivity. The average age of an American farmer is fast approaching 60 years old which is significantly higher than any other occupation. Farming and ranching is not only an occupation, but a very rewarding way of life. This helps to explain why many farmers continue farming well into their 70’s and 80’s.
Agriculture consistently ranks among the most dangerous occupations in the country. According to preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic’s 2010 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, farming and ranching had a fatality rating of 41.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers. This ranks fourth behind commercial fishing, logging, and pilots and flight engineers.
Considering the physical and cognitive limitations that develop with aging, and the inherently dangerous farming environment, it is not surprising that senior farmers are at particular risk of injury. The aging process can significantly reduce physical strength, eyesight, hearing, balance and reaction time, yet the dangers of farm equipment, tractors and livestock typically remain the same.
Age-Related Risk Factors
When senior farmers fail to recognize diminishing physical and sensory abilities and to take corrective actions to accommodate these losses it places them at considerable risk. On farms where the worksite is also the homestead, these risks also extend to coworkers and family members who may be working with or around farmers operating machinery and equipment. The following are some of the most common age-related factors that affect senior farmers.
The ability to hear is an important part of farm safety. Farmers who lose their ability to hear may be unaware of machinery malfunctions, approaching vehicles, or nearby co-workers in the vicinity of tractors or other loud, moving equipment.
Vision difficulties are also responsible for many accidents and injuries on the farm. Farmers often work early-mornings or late into the evenings and night when light is limited. Vision impairments only compound the problem. Farm work also involves careful manipulation of controls, levers, and gears on tractors and machinery. Farmers must be able to quickly recognize and negotiate potential hazards to avoid injury. Falls, the most common cause of injury among seniors, is often attributed to poor vision due to the inability to see obstacles and the loss of balance.
Proper body balance is essential to perform many farm and ranch activities, such as mounting and riding a horse, mounting and operating a tractor, climbing fences, loading and stacking hay, and carrying sacks of feed. Loss of one’s sense of balance can mean falling from a high vertical distance or finding oneself in a dangerous environment such as falling from farm equipment like tractors or combines or into the path of towed equipment.
Safety Tips for Senior Farmers
Whether you are a senior farmer or in another age group the most effective way to minimize farm hazards is to re-design the work environment, machinery or methods to perform work task to lessen the exposure to injury and make safety a priority. It is much more difficult to change attitudes and behaviors, especially in senior farmers who have many years of experience where risky behavior has become accepted. The following suggestions are especially important to the safety and health of senior farmers:
It is important that senior farmers understand the physical challenges and increased risks of aging and make the appropriate changes in work activities to ensure the safety of themselves, co-workers and family members. Speaking from personal experience sometimes it can be a challenging and emotional issue to persuade “our senior farmers” (fathers, mothers, grandparents) that they should not continue to perform some of the duties they have grown to love while farming all their lives and that their best interest and safety is the most important thing.
Information for this article was taken in part from Safety for Senior Farmers by David W. Smith, Extension Safety Program Texas A & M University.