Farming Magazine - August, 2009


The Aging Face of Ag

Older farmers face distinct challenges
By Barbara Mulhern
Cindy Corl and her family had a dairy operation for more than 25 years. After they sold the dairy cows in 1998, she began raising purebred Angus on her farm in Pine Grove Mills, Pa. Cindy is an example of a farmer who will likely continue to farm until her later years.
Bill Strouse in Warriors Mark, Pa., predominantly farms corn, soybeans and wheat, is one of many older farmers who continue to rely on tractors to get their farm work done.

It’s not uncommon in the northeastern part of the country to see farmers in their 70s or even older operating tractors, planting, harvesting, repairing broken equipment or performing other farm tasks.

Yet, farming at an older age—even in your 50s—presents certain challenges and risks. If your farm employs older workers, it’s important not to make any generalizations, Bill Cook of Human Resource Associates in Manassas, Va., says.

“The older worker is becoming the norm,” Cook says. “The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act [ADEA] says that the elderly worker is a protected minority and is age 40 or over. Originally, it cited the ages of 40 to 65 as ‘elderly.’ Today, there is no upper age limit. As long as the individual is able to perform the job and is 40 or older, he or she is protected under this Act.”

The ADEA covers employers with 20 or more employees, part time or full time.

The risks

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated that the number of workers 55 years old and older would increase 72 percent between 2000 and 2015—from 18.2 million to 31.2 million. This compares to BLS’ projected increase of just 7 percent for workers between the ages of 16 and 54 during that same time period.

In farming, many people continue to work full time well beyond the normal retirement age. For these farmers, the already dangerous work of farming can become even more hazardous, the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety (NECAS) says.

“The quick onset of fatigue, reduced vision and slower reaction time that are part of the normal aging process can increase risk among older agricultural workers. Also, many suffer from permanent hearing loss and arthritis, which can seriously impact safe job performance,” NECAS adds.

Other age-related changes that may impact older farmers include a loss of balance, dizziness and reduced muscle strength.

John Myers, a researcher with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Morgantown, W.Va., has studied injuries and fatalities among older farmers. Among his and his colleagues’ findings are:

  • Between 1992 and 2004, older farmers and farmworkers (55 years old and older) accounted for more than half of all of the farming-related deaths (3,671 of 7,064 deaths).
  • The overall farming fatality rate during that period was 25.4 deaths per 100,000 workers per year. Older farmers and farmworkers experienced a fatality rate of 45.8 deaths per 100,000 workers per year.
  • The most common source of fatal injury to older farmers during that time period was tractors. Other leading sources of fatal injury included trucks, agricultural harvesters, agricultural mowers and animals.

Myers and his co-researchers also reviewed nonfatal farm-related injuries to older farmers between 2001 and 2004. Among their findings:

  • Forty-seven percent of the injuries to farmers and farmworkers age 55 and older resulted in 14 or more restricted workdays. This compared to 32 percent of the injuries to farmers and farmworkers between the ages of 20 and 54.
  • The most common types of nonfatal injuries to older farmers and farmworkers during that period were being struck by objects, falls (from the same level or from an elevation), being assaulted by an animal, transportation-related injuries and bodily reactions such as overexertion.

The researchers noted that injuries to farmers age 55 and older tend to be much more severe than injuries to younger farmers.

Leading Sources of Farming Deaths to Older Workers, 1992-2004
Source of Injury All Deaths Deaths Over the Age of 54
Tractors 2,617 1,702 (65 percent)
Trucks 687 272 (40 percent)
Agricultural Harvesters 273 121 (44 percent)
Agricultural Mowers 168 117 (70 percent)
Animals 323 201 (62 percent)
Source: John Myers, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Tips to reduce your risk

The National Safety Council has these suggestions for older farmers:

  • Have your vision checked regularly by a doctor, as the aging process can decrease peripheral vision, which may affect driving performance.
  • Vision is hampered the most at dawn and dusk, so avoid operating tractors at these times.
  • Get plenty of rest during planting, harvesting and other long work periods. Take frequent breaks to protect against fatigue and physical stress.
  • Use extreme caution when operating equipment. Be familiar with any medications you take and their effects on reaction time. Even over-the-counter medications can hamper reflexes and diminish alertness, limiting your ability to safely operate farm tractors and other machinery.
  • Make sure a family member or another worker knows where you will be working.
  • Know your limitations. Don’t push your mind and body past their safe and healthy limits.

The Farm Safety Association in Guelph, Ont., Canada, has these additional suggestions:

  • Increase lighting levels in barns and other buildings to accommodate reduced vision.
  • Ensure that all steps, stairs and handrails are of excellent quality and are well-lighted with switches at both ends of the stairs and by all entrances.
  • Use nonslip surfaces on walkways and steps where possible.
  • Install easily operated or maneuvered fence gates, building doors and animal handling devices.
  • Use properly fitted and easily accessible personal protection devices.

The Farm Safety Association also recommends that you consider trading in older, less safe tractors for newer, safer models. “Retrofit older tractors, when possible, with rollover protective structures [ROPS] and seat belts. Know that the safest tractor for senior farmers is a newer tractor with an enclosed cab and ROPS,” the organization recommends.

Older Workers: Dispelling the Myths

In fiscal year 2008, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 24,582 complaints of discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which protects workers age 40 and older from employment discrimination based on age.

The EEOC ordered employers to pay out $82.8 million to aggrieved older persons as a result of these claims. Another $102.2 million in relief was obtained through lawsuits filed in the federal courts.

How can you avoid claims of discrimination from an older worker? Bill Cook of Human Resource Associates in Manassas, Va., says separating fact from fiction is a good place to start. He cites the following common myths about older workers:

Myth: Learning ability declines with age.

Fact: Since 1980, medical studies have shown that learning ability, memory and motivation are not caused by age, they are a factor of specific, mostly controllable, diseases.

Myth: Older workers cost more due to absenteeism.

Fact: Attendance records are far better for older workers than for younger workers. Older workers have a strong work ethic and typically change jobs less frequently than younger workers.

Myth: Work causes too much stress for older workers.

Fact: The ability to cope with stress is not a function of age, but rather of personal characteristics and lifestyle.

Myth: Older workers are set in their ways and will not adapt.

Fact: Adaptability is known to be unrelated to age.

“Resolve that you are going to hire by ability, not by age,” Cook suggests. If you already employ older workers, pay close attention to how they are being treated on your farm.

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based agricultural/horticultural freelance writer