Older Victorian farmers losing out on the safety front

As any older farmer will tell you farm work provides enjoyment and satisfaction as well as a sense of accomplishment. This helps with psychological health and a sense of contribution to family and community.

However, older farmers will also agree that age can lead to issues including decreased strength and flexibility, hearing loss, susceptibility to fatigue, potential changes to mental abilities and, for some, the onset of chronic illness. Older farmers may also be taking medication to help maintain health.

Given the obvious benefits, older farmers should be encouraged to keep working on the farm while they have the capacity to keep doing so.

However there are risks that we need to be aware of.

Unfortunately the down side to older farmers continuing to work was forcefully illustrated in 2017. Because of the 14 people who lost their lives working on farms in Victoria 8, were aged over 55.

The warning signs

  • The risk of injury is exacerbated through slowed reflexes, limited range of motion, issues with vision, balance and even reaction times. However warning signs of increased risk will come when the older farmer is:
  • Stressed (mentally or physically), and/or
  • Fatigued, and/or
  • Hurrying or multi-tasking.

So how do we support older farmers to work without injuring themselves or others?

Firstly farm families need to continue to support each other. As older farmers continue to work there needs to be discussion around roles and responsibilities, how jobs can be redesigned through technology, what changes can be made to the working environment or to ensure that older farmers understand, and work within their own limitations.

Considerations could include not driving farm machinery at dawn or dusk when the light is poor, putting non slip surfaces on walkways or steps or getting plenty of rest through taking extra breaks and drinking extra fluids to protect against stress or fatigue.

Perhaps the main tasks on the farm can be taken up by the next generation of the family, employing workers or contracted out. The older farmer can put their experience, knowledge and extra time into the supervision of the work, odd jobs around the farm that never got done or ensuring the hazards that they simply accepted on the farm are addressed and not left as a nasty surprise for a future generation.

Older farmers and their partners should also speak to their GP or pharmacist to get an understanding of the impacts any medication (prescribed or over the counter) can have in their work environment. Where age or medication impacts the ability to drive farm machinery or work at heights or work with livestock then steps need to be taken to cover this work.

A time will also come when the older farmer is no longer capable of working on the farm. Commencing early discussions around succession or sale of the farm provides opportunity to emotionally adapt to this change as well as opportunity to enjoy your retirement.

Richard Versteegen, Farm Safety Extension Officer, VFF