Opinion by Randy Wigel
Keeping Ranchers and Farmers Safe in Later Life by Randy Wigel
Aging is a naturally occurring process with implications for agricultural safety and health. Although many ranchers and farmers make allowances for age-related reductions in physical strength, speed, agility, sight and hearing, they can no longer handle some routine work tasks. Ranchers and farmers become more susceptible to work-related injuries as they move into their 60s.
Age-related sensory and physical impairments occur among senior agricultural operators at various rates. Eyesight, hearing, balance, muscle strength and reaction time may remain good for some individuals who are well beyond age 65, while becoming significantly poorer in others.
As a person ages, there is a gradual decline in the ability of the eye to detect normal environmental stimuli.
The ability to work safely is highly dependent on the ability to see objects clearly at different distances, distinguish colors, quickly adapt to changing light conditions and focus both eyes on an object. Generally, to see objects as clearly as they did when they were age 20, many 45-year-olds need four times as much light. By age 60, the amount of light required to see clearly is double that needed by 45-year-olds.
Another change associated with aging is hearing loss. All people experience some hearing loss as a result of aging, ear disease and exposure to loud noises. In addition to normal hearing loss, studies suggest that agricultural workers of all ages have higher levels of noise-induced hearing loss than the general population.
Such losses result from excessive exposure to loud noise from tractors, farm machinery, animals and other sources. Older ranchers and farmers who have difficulty hearing words or sounds may not be able to detect warning signals, such as the sounding of an automobile horn, the approach of a fast-moving animal or the warning yell of a coworker.
Sense of balance
An individual’s sense of balance is controlled by specialized structures, called the vestibular system, located in the inner ear. The structures provide information about the position of the head and also sense the speed and direction of body movements. With aging, the vestibular system becomes less effective in sensing body position and movement.
A vestibular system whose function has been impaired may also result in the sensation of dizziness. Some situations in which the loss of balance and a feeling of dizziness increase the risk of injury for senior producers include driving, walking across an uneven surface such as cut hay in a hayfield or even moving around in a small fishing boat.
Dizziness or a loss of balance around machinery poses a particularly serious safety risk of seniors falling into moving or unguarded parts of equipment.
Flexibility in the joints of the shoulders, arms and legs; adequate muscle strength; and good posture also are important functional criteria for senior worker’s safety. The process of aging causes collagen, the main supportive protein in the skin, tendons, joint cartilage and connective tissues, to become irregular in shape.
The irregularly shaped collagen may reduce spine flexibility and create pain and discomfort in working situations such as operating machinery controls; lifting, carrying and loading objects; mounting and dismounting machinery; and climbing up and down stairs.
Reduced muscle strength often compounds joint impairments like arthritis, rheumatism, bursitis and frozen shoulder. Any one of these impairments, or a combination of them, may significantly increase the risk of injury to senior ranchers and farmers by decreasing and delaying their responses to hazardous situations.
In light of the limited physical abilities that might occur, the following suggestions are important for the safety and health of older producers:
Increase light levels in barns and other work environments,
Equip stairs and steps with handrails and non-slip surfaces,
Make sure all paths in barns and buildings are free from obstacles,
See that all corrals and animal confinement areas are structurally sound and have escape routes,
Equip gates with easily workable latches and locks,
Use hearing protection while operating loud equipment and tools,
Limit particularly hazardous tasks to daylight hours,
Equip all tractors with rollover protection structures (ROPS) and seatbelts,
Check with a healthcare provider about operating machinery while taking certain prescription drugs; they might have side effects that limit your reaction time and/or sense of balance.
Reducing or controlling injury risks and hazards is not any different for seniors than any other age group of ranchers or farmers. It is better to make physical changes to the working environment to completely remove or lessen exposure to hazards than to rely upon an individual’s behavior around the hazard.
There are benefits that come with age. Older ranchers and farmers have the wisdom and experience that many younger workers lack. Use the enhanced judgment and skill to compensate for the decreases in reaction time and muscle strength that are inevitable.