Make sure farmers are safe and healthy during Older American Month

May 2011 is Older Americans Month, and a good time to take a close look at farm safety and health issues for senior farmers.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging designates each May as Older Americans Month. And the theme for 2011 is Age Strong! Live Strong!, “which recognizes the diversity and vitality of today’s older Americans and highlights the importance of staying healthy throughout our lives.” This annual event provides an opportunity to point out that staying healthy is particularly important for Michigan seniors still actively participating in farming. Data collected by the MSU Department Occupational and Environmental Medicine points to an increased risk of work related fatalities and injury for seniors when actively involved in farming. This increased risk is mainly due to the impact of the aging process and the physiological changes that accompany this period in life.

Farming remains active, physically demanding work presenting some older farmers with problems due to physiological changes which even they may not realize have occurred. Age-related sensory and physical impairments can occur at differing rates. Hearing, eyesight, balance, muscle strength and reaction time may remain strong for some older farmers or be drastically reduced for others at an earlier age. When age-related impairments begin to appear, it sets the stage for a new range of risks.

For instance, the physiological systems involved in maintaining balance (vision, muscle tone, inner ear and nervous system) can be impacted by aging, medical conditions and the effect of medications used to treat a variety of health problems that can occur later in life. Physiological changes connected with aging can also play a part in reducing reaction time, resulting in potentially hazardous situations while operating equipment and working with livestock. To help avoid problems with reduced reaction time, the following precautions can help:

  • Minimize background noise while working.
  • Schedule regular vision exams.
  • Increase lighting during darkness and reduce glare during times of extreme brightness.
  • Ensure warning devices are operational on farm equipment.

In general, reducing the risks and hazards for senior farmers is not very much different than for any other group. The way to reduce risk is to understand and acknowledge that hazard reduction comes from removing the hazard, not relying on increasing individual alertness. The following are suggestions made by Canadian Farm Safety Association as pertinent to senior farmers’ safety:

Increase light levels in barns and other buildings to accommodate the reduced visual acuity of many older farmers.

  • Ensure that steps, stairs and handrails are sound and in repair and well lighted.
  • Use non-slip surfaces on walkways and stairs where possible.
  • Keep gates, doors and animal handling equipment repaired and set up to maximize ease of use.
  • Use properly fitted and accessible personal protective devices like ear plugs and safety glasses.

To reduce tractor and equipment operator risk for senior farmers:

  • Consider trading in older or less safe models for newer models with improved safety equipment.
  • Retrofit older tractors and equipment with ROPS and a seat belt. And use them.
  • Ensure that the tractors are functional and well maintained, with working lights, brakes and safety shields in place.
  • Consider limiting tractor operation to daylight hours and choose times when traffic is reduced for transiting public roadways.
  • Senior farmers should be aware of the effect of over the counter and prescription drugs they may be using that may reduce alertness, decrease sense of balance or interfere in some other way with expected work tasks.
  • Consult with a family physician about how physical limitations may affect safety and health on the job.

Finally, senior farmers should get adequate rest, eat nutritionally balanced meals and wear proper clothing and footwear that match environmental conditions. Every farmer or farm employee should know the symptoms of heart attack and stroke. Every farm should have at least one person trained in CPR. Older farmers are a source of wisdom and experience that have significant value to their families, farm businesses and community. That judgment and experience should be used to compensate for the decreases in reaction time and muscle strength that the younger generations takes for granted. The theme for Older Americans Month is Age Strong! Live Strong! It is time to take that message to heart on Michigan farms.

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