Study: Older farmers at higher risk of serious injury

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

FAYETTEVILLE -- Older farmers spend a higher percentage of their time operating heavy machinery, raising their risk of serious injury, according to a study released recently by the University of Alberta.

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," said 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."

In Arkansas, as with the rest of the United States, the average age of farmers is increasing. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the number of U.S. farmers aged 45-64 grew 13 percent from 1.5 million in 2002 to 1.7 million in 2007. The number of U.S. farmers aged 45-64 grew 22 percent from just below 674,000 to slightly more than 823,000.

In Arkansas, there were 21,960 operators for whom farming was the primary occupation. Of that number, 10,004 were aged 45-64.

And there are plenty of dangers in farming. 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 said. Trucks and fishing boats were also major sources of death in this industry 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

* Hearing -- "Everyone who lives long enough is going to experience some degree of hearing loss," he said. "The ability to hear is an important part of farm safety."

* Vision -- "Age affects our ability to recognize objects at different distances, distinguish colors and patterns, adapt to changing light levels and focus clearly on an object," Freyaldenhoven said. "By age 60 the light needed to see clearly is doubled that required by a 45-year-old's."

* Balance or Equilibrium. "Balance is controlled by a portion of the inner ear, that helps the brain control balance," he said. "As one ages, ear structure deteriorates. This is a major cause of falls in seniors, especially senior farmers."

* Strength and Flexibility -- "Know your limitations. As we age both strength and flexibility diminish," Freyaldenhoven said. "Older farmers who operate tractors may find it more difficult to peer behind them and check for hazards."

"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," said lead author Don Voaklander, a professor in the School of Public Health and director of the Alberta center for Injury Control and Research.

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.

To learn more about AgrAbility in Arkansas, visit 
Or contact your county extension office.

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