Many farm and ranch operations are family owned and operated and include workers of all ages. As a result, older adults are more prevalent in production agriculture than in other occupations. Between 2002 and 2007, the average age of farm operators increased from 55.3 to 57.1, and the number of farm operators over the age of 75 increased by 20% (2007 Census of Agriculture). Senior farmers and ranchers can offer valuable insight and wisdom gained from their years of work experience. It is important to keep communication channels open with senior workers, provide necessary worksite accommodations, and implement changes to keep them safe.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), when it comes to work-related injuries, older workers are at a disadvantage compared to their younger counterparts because older workers are more susceptible to injuries and typically have a longer recuperation period (NIOSH, 2009). In an article in the October 2005 Monthly Labor Review, Samuel Meyer notes that in the period between 1995 and 2005, a farmer over the age of 55 was over 10 times more likely to be involved in a fatal-injury incident involving tractors, equipment, or animals.
Senior farmers and ranchers are typically at a higher risk for work-related injuries and death due to the effects of the aging process. These effects can include:
- reduced reaction time, balance, and strength;
- changes in cognition levels;
- decreased visual acuity; and
- hearing loss.
These types of changes can affect the work that senior farmers and ranchers can safely complete. Agricultural producers and family members need to consider ways to make adjustments and modifications to better accommodate the needs of senior workers.
To decrease the risk of injury, those working with senior farmers and ranchers should take the following actions:
- Vision Testing: Ask that senior workers have their vision tested regularly and abide by doctors' recommendations regarding any driving restrictions.
- Communication System: Keep a communication system, such as cell phones or two-way radios, available to senior workers at all times.
Fall Prevention: Take steps to reduce the risk of falls.
- Increase the level of lighting in barns, shops, and other buildings.
- Clear walkways, add nonslip surfaces to walkways, and add steps and handrails to stairs and elevated equipment.
- Medication: Encourage senior workers to consider whether prescription and over-the-counter medications could affect their ability to safely operate equipment and machinery. Ask them to check for any warnings on medication labels.
- Rollover Protection: Make sure that all the primary tractors in the operation are equipped with rollover protection. (Click here for information about rollover protection rebate programs.) Consider trading in an older model tractor for a newer model that is equipped with better seating, accessibility, and rollover protection.
- Rest and Fluids: Have senior workers take necessary rest breaks and encourage them to get ample sleep, especially during high-stress times of the year such as harvesting. Provide frequent opportunities for senior workers to drink plenty of fluids.
- Health Conditions: Be aware that health conditions can cause changes in a worker's ability to safely complete a farm task. Understand that limitations or worksite accommodations may be necessary for senior workers to remain in production agriculture. Ask senior workers to consult with their physicians about participating in programs of strength training, stretching, and cardiovascular exercise to maintain or improve health status.
- Hearing: It is common for senior workers to have some level of hearing impairment that can make it difficult for them to hear warning signals and approaching animals and co-workers. Encourage senior workers to have their hearing checked by an audiologist to determine whether hearing aids are applicable to their work environment. Provide workers with any necessary hearing protection. Due to hearing impairments, the use of agricultural hand signals may be even more valuable to senior farmers and ranchers. Click here to learn more about hand signals used in production agriculture.
- Tractor Operation and Driving: Ensure that each tractor in the operation is equipped with properly working lights, brakes, and fenders and that shields are in place. Limit tractor driving to daytime hours, and ask workers to avoid roadways that are heavily traveled. Ask senior workers to take a driving course to maintain and promote skills and safety knowledge related to driving.
Use the following format to cite this article:
Working with senior farmers and ranchers. (2012) Farm and Ranch eXtension in Safety and Health (FReSH) Community of Practice. Retrieved from http://www.extension.org/pages/63140/working-with-senior-farmers-and-ranchers.
2007 Census of Agriculture: Demographics. (2007) United States Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistics Service. Retrieved from http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Fact_Sheets/Demographics/demographics.pdf.
Freeman, S., Schwab, C., & Miller, L. (n.d.) Keep active farmers safer in later life. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Retrieved from http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1841A.pdf.
Funkenbusch, K. & Downs, W. (n.d.) Senior farmers at risk on the farm. Agricultural Safety Tips and Ideas. Retrieved from http://agrability.missouri.edu/ruralsafety/factsheets/updated/SeniorFarmersRiskOntheFarm.pdf.
Meyer, S. (2005) Fatal occupational injuries to older workers in farming. Monthly Labor Review. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2005/10/art5full.pdf.
Murphy, D. (1994) Senior farmers and safety: How changing health affects risks of fatal injury. Extension Circular 147. The Pennsylvania State University College of Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension.
Occupational health disparities. (2009) National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/programs/ohd/risks.html.