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Increased use of heavy equipment putting older farmers at risk

EDMONTON (Canadian OH&S News)


EDMONTON (Canadian OH&S News)

As the average age of operators on Canada’s farms continues to increase, so too does their risk of injury while working the land, according to a new study out of the University of Alberta.

Through a survey questionnaire of more than 2,700 male farmers over 25 in Saskatchewan in the winter of 2007, researchers found that as farmers aged, their weekly hours of work dropped by about 34 per cent, but the time older populations spent using machinery such as combines, tractors and swarthers — the most dangerous part of the work — increased by about 40 per cent.

“We know that farmers don’t retire like normal folks, we’ve known that for quite a while now. Even a 70-year-old farmer is working for 30 or 40 hours a week, that’s what they report,” said Dr. Donald Voaklander, the author of the study.

“Because it’s seen as a physically easier task than other farm work, you’re riding around and your mobility isn’t an issue using a tractor or a combine. They just self-select themselves out of the harder, more physical farm tasks … While they might be working fewer hours, they’re proportionally more exposed to the most dangerous aspect of farm work,” he said.

According to the publication “Agricultural Fatalities in Canada 1999 to 2008” from Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting, 70 per cent of the almost 2,000 farming fatalities in the country were machine-related, with almost 400 as a result of rollovers and more than 350 from runovers. Farmers aged 50 to 69 represented 621 deaths in that time period, and those over 80 years of age had the highest rate of mortality, with almost 80 deaths per 100,000 farmers.

Making this data more significant is the notable greying of the farming industry: in the 2011 census, the number of farm operators 55 and older surpassed those 35 to 54 years old, and the average age of farmers was on the rise in every province.

The Saskatchewan study, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, concluded that injury prevention efforts for farm workers should be focused on safe machinery operation.

Voaklander, who teaches at the University of Alberta as a professor at the School of Public Health and is the director of the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, said that older farmers should be looking at new equipment where safety controls are an inherent part of the machine’s construction — such as dead-man switches and better ingress and egress platforms and guarding — as the study found their equipment could be the oldest on farm.

The study also recommended that co-workers and family watch for signs of close calls on the machinery, such as dents or paint scratches on the equipment or fence posts that have been knocked over.

“When we talk about safety on farms, it really is about shifting the culture so that we stop and think safety first. That’s true for any age group working on farms, but in some ways more important for our older age groups. It might mean that thinking safety first asks us to do things differently than how they’ve always been done,” said Glennis Bihun, executive director of Saskatchewan’s occupational health and safety division.

“What we really realize is that it’s really important that we take an educational approach to increase the awareness that safety on farms is an issue,” she said, noting the oh&s division’s contributions to the Ministry of Agriculture and its Agriview journal, which is provided to farm workers across the province.

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