Farm Safety for Senior Farmers

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.

  • Hearing- Age related hearing loss is called presbycusis ( presby=elder, cussis=hearing). Everyone who lives long enough will develop some degree of hearing loss. Those who damage their ears through noise develop it sooner and people who live and work in noisy environments have more presbycusis than those who live and work in quite environments. Farmers exposed to continuous or frequent loud noises from farm machinery, tractors or confined livestock will usually experience some level of hearing loss, either short term or long term. Most presbycusis include high frequency sensitivity loss, which disrupts speech comprehension in proportion to the sensitivity loss. This condition worsens with age.

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- Over a period of years, vision impairments can develop gradually, affecting our ability to recognize objects at different distances, distinguish colors and patterns, adapt to changing light levels and focus clearly on an object. For example, many 45-year-olds need four times as much light to see objects as clearly as they did when they were 20. By age 60, the light needed to see clearly is doubled that required by a 45-year-old’s. As I pass the double nickel (55) this year I can appreciate and agree with that last statement!!

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.

  • Balance –Balance (or equilibrium) is controlled in a portion of the inner ear. Fluid and small hairs in the semicircular canal (labyrinth) stimulate the nerve that helps the brain maintain balance. As one ages, ear structures deteriorate. The ear drum thickens and the inner ear bones and other structures are affected. It often becomes increasingly difficult to maintain balance.  This is a major cause of falls in seniors, especially senior farmers.

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.

  • Strength and Flexibility – As we age, our physical strength and flexibility limits us from doing the same tasks we have always done in the same manner. Flexibility in the spine and joints is also reduced, leading to pain and discomfort when the muscles are exerted. Over time, a farmer’s ability to manipulate machinery and tractor controls, pick up bales of hay or sacks of feed, and climb stairs or ladders becomes more challenging or difficult, making what use to be ordinary task relatively more difficult or hazardous.  Senior farmers who regularly operate tractors may find it difficult to peer behind them to check towed implements or turn their bodies around to check for oncoming traffic before entering or leaving the highway.

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:

  • Increase the light levels in barns and other work environments
  • Equip stairs and steps with hand rails and non-slip surfaces
  • Ensure all corrals and animal confinement areas are structurally secure and equipped with escape routes
  • Equip gates with easily accessible and workable latches and locks
  • Use hearing protection while operating loud equipment or in noisy animal confinement areas
  • Limit particularly hazardous tasks to daylight hours where light is the brightest
  • Use appropriate power lifts and mobile material carts to transport hay bales, feed, etc. around the farmstead
  • Limit tractor operation to daylight hours
  • Equip tractors ( without cabs) with rollover protection structures (ROPS) and seatbelts
  • Refrain from operating machinery and tractors while under the influence of medications which may have side affects that limit reaction time, sense of balance, and that interfere with your ability to perform work safely

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.