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COLUMN: Health and safety issues for Kentucky’s aging farmers

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By Bryce Roberts

Because farmers are exposed to multiple hazards throughout extended careers, physical problems can start early. To maintain health, Kentucky farm workers, whose average age is 57, higher than the average worker, must pay attention, particularly as they age, to issues caused by their way of life.
•Risk of suicide. Farmers have the highest suicide rates of any occupation. Farmers are exposed to multifaceted stress and pressure. In addition to hard physical labor and long days throughout the year, a farmer must be able to endure the vagaries of nature and livestock, adverse weather conditions, market fluctuations, government policy changes, and family pressures. This unique, emotional pressure can be difficult to manage, and in some cases, it can lead to suicide.
•Falls. Falls are one of the leading causes of death. It is important to note that most falls occur from the same level—“trips and slips” are the main danger. Being pushed by a cow, slipping in mud, falling on ice—mundane accidents that occur on the ground can cause injury, especially for an older person.
•Hearing loss. Farm work routinely exposes farmers to damaging noises. For example, the ear which is turned to the front of the tractor, where the exhaust is loudest, will have greater hearing loss. Farm youth have more hearing loss than non-farm youth, which, because hearing loss is cumulative, is a hazard. As farmers age, they may not be able to hear important noises such as approaching machinery, verbal warnings, or people approaching them, increasing the danger to them and people around them.
•Melanoma. Farmers often remove clothing to stay cool, so more skin is exposed to damaging sun. They don’t often use sunscreen and may not practice regular skin self-exams. Of special note are the tips of the ears. Many farmers wear baseball caps, which increase the sun exposure of the ears and back of the neck. Working without a shirt or in sleeveless tops also increases the risk of sun damage.
•Cataracts. Repeated sun exposure from farming accelerates the risk of developing cataracts. Statistically, farmers are more likely to develop cataracts at a younger age and, other than professional fisherman, they have the highest rate of cataracts, largely because they do not wear protective sunglasses.
•Preventative care. Farmers often ignore their own health and safety, adopting a fatalistic view that “it won’t happen to me.” They routinely skip vaccines such as tetanus and infrequently visit doctors.
Compounding the physical issues is the fact that farming culture is unique, and therefore the way that doctors and nurses interact with and relate to farmers is important. Researchers are beginning to develop new guidelines to better screen and understand farmers, who have a strong cultural and emotional commitment to the farm that clinicians may not understand.
Sometimes, adjusting the screening questions can help doctors gauge a patient’s risk for an illness. For instance, over half of all farmers are bi-vocational. But often, only the non-farming job is reported to clinicians, which limits their ability to screen for certain farm-related illnesses and injuries.
Farmers often define health as the ability to work. In a lifelong profession that expects, reveres and upholds such commitment, careful health screenings and care are necessary to keep farmers working during their advanced years.
Feel free to contact me at your Spencer County Cooperative Extension Service at 477-2217 or you can email me at broberts@uky.edu.  You can visit the Spencer County Extension Services’ website at www.spencerextension.com.
Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.