Age shall not weary us

Photo of a man climbing into a tractor

Loss of agility and slower reaction times can be a
risk for older farmers, but health experts say an
active work life in older age also has important
upsides.

PHOTO: Nicole Baxter

While the increasing number of growers working beyond retirement age raises farm safety issues, there are also significant health benefits for those who still love the job.

Health experts are taking increasing note of Australia’s ageing grower population, with evidence building that older growers are at higher risk of injury and also take longer to recover.

However, provided older growers recognise that they might not be as agile as they once were, an extended working life also delivers health benefits.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures show that the median age of growers is now 53 – significantly higher than the 40-year-old median across all other occupations. Allied to this information is data collated by the National Farm Injury Data Centre at the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety (ACAHS) showing that the number of growers working beyond retirement age is also rising.

ABS data shows the percentage of Australian growers aged over 55 rose from 38 per cent in 2001 to 43 per cent in 2006, with a significant proportion of growers working after they turn 65.

The ageing trend comes with both good and bad health effects. The ACAHS Health and Safety in Older Farmers in Australia report, published by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation and backed by the GRDC, reveals an increase in the proportion of on-farm deaths involving older growers in the period from 1992 and 2007.

Tractors, quad bikes and other farm vehicles were implicated in most of the on-farm fatalities during this period. Suicide represented 21 per cent of fatalities in growers and workers aged 55-plus, with statistics for growers older than 65 years double the national rate.

The ACAHS suggests physical and social isolation, economic challenges and limited access to counselling services may contribute to increased levels of mental stress among growers.

In terms of injury rather than death, the report cites falls, motorcycles and animals as the main causes, while two-thirds of the growers studied also recorded a significant degree of hearing loss from ‘noise injury’.

ACAHS director Associate Professor Tony Lower says natural effects of ageing, such as loss of muscle strength and agility, slower reaction times, diminished eyesight, impaired balance and reduced concentration, place older grain growers at a higher risk of injury.

“Since the 1980s there has been a noticeable trend for older growers to work on farms longer,” Associate Professor Lower says.

The Health and Safety in Older Farmers in Australia report singled out osteoarthritis as the leading cause of pain and disability in all older Australians, and referred to international studies that showed a connection between hip and knee arthritis and farming in men. It hypothesised the increased risk of hip osteoarthritis in growers was related to tractor driving and hip-joint angles, while the higher risk of knee-joint arthritis was caused by walking on rough ground and heavy lifting (loads more than 25 kilograms).

The report says older growers are likely to develop degenerative eye diseases and to suffer from diminished eyesight that could contribute to increased risk of injury. It also states that cumulative exposure to noisy machinery and equipment means older growers are vulnerable to hearing loss and tinnitus.

Associate Professor Lower says a lot of growers work into their 70s by choice, while others feel compelled to continue working because they have no successor.

Whatever the reason, he says it is important that older growers understand the physiological changes that will affect their work, and that they talk about health and safety.

To help with this, ACAHS has developed ‘The Great Idea Bank’ (see www.aghealth.org.au/index.php?id=5042), a program funded by the Australian Government that familiarises growers with the ageing process and introduces strategies to make working easier.

“Essentially it’s about trying to make growers fit for farming, and farming fit for them,” Associate Professor Lower says.

Importantly, health professionals are keen to support older growers who want to, or need to, continue working because there are clear health benefits as well.

Professor of Rural General Practice at Deakin University Daryl Pedler says physical activity, as a result of continuing to work, contributes to longevity.

“If you are physically active, you are maintaining health and being engaged in that way also improves psychological wellbeing,” he says.

Professor Pedler’s own research indicates all growers are more likely to work safely if they work with someone else, know someone who has suffered from an injury or have been injured themselves. “It’s because most farmers work alone most of the time that there is a heightened risk of injury,” he says.

Professor Pedler has these tips:

  • be realistic – ‘What does the person who knows me better than anyone else agree that I am still able to do?’;
  • reflect on the past 12 months – ‘What is my experience in the past year telling me? Have there been any injuries or close calls?’;
  • try to develop a long-term succession plan; and
  • modify work activities if necessary.

National Centre for Farmer Health director Clinical Associate Professor Susan Brumby says it is not easy for growers to negotiate a move from the farm because it doubles as home, not just a workplace. However, despite the increased risk of accidents, she too is keen to highlight the positives.

“Older farmers are typically active, interested and have a real affinity with growing something, which is satisfying,” she says.

“So it’s important to reduce the risks – don’t work in the heat of the day, use plant and equipment safely, don’t climb onto ladders, roofs and silos, and know where your glasses are if they aren’t on your nose.”

More information:

Associate Professor Tony Lower
02 6752 8210,
tony.lower@sydney.edu.au

Professor Daryl Pedler
03 5564 4398,
d.pedler@deakin.edu.au

Clinical Associate Professor Susan Brumby
03 5551 8533,
susan.brumby@deakin.edu.au

The Great Idea Bank
02 6752 8210,
www.aghealth.org.au/index.php?id=5042

ACAHS Health and Safety in Older Farmers in Australia report:

www.aghealth.org.au/tinymce_fm/uploaded/Chartbooks/older_farmers_rirdc_.pdf

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