Given the many challenges of their work environment, growers deserve credit for all they do to stay well and safe, says Judy Garrett, Syngenta health services manager. "Farmers do a really good job of taking care of their health," she notes. However, there's always more that can be done; and taking the extra time to be safe is always a worthwhile investment, especially in relation to these five common health-related challenges in agriculture:
1. Traumatic injury. Injuries from tractors and other equipment are quite common. One in every 10 growers has an amputation, says Deborah Reed, distinguished service professor at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing. Fatigue and stress are contributing factors to those numbers. "Our brains are wired to do one thing at a time," Reed says. Fatigue and stress distract us from the task at hand. And more than half of growers also have an off-farm job, making fatigue and stress even more likely.
Growers need to be sure all equipment is operating and serviced properly. "Form good safety habits around issues, such as working alone," Garrett says. "You should always have a first-aid kit and a cellphone handy. Make sure you can call for help."
It's also important for growers to understand how their machinery works. "Learn where the dangers lie with each machine," says Susanna Von Essen, M.D., professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "Learn the safe way to use it, and do it that way every time."
2. Respiratory illness. Rates of farmer's lung, a disease caused by breathing in moldy hay or crop dust, have fallen as farming has become more mechanized. But organic dust toxic syndrome remains an issue, Von Essen says. It causes flu-like symptoms several hours after working in a grain bin. "People who have had this are more likely to report future problems when exposed to dust of any kind," Von Essen says. "It changes the lungs somehow."
When working around grain, growers need to always remember to wear an N95 respirator with two straps as a precaution.
3. Mental health issues. Being constantly subjected to many factors outside their control may create an exceptionally stressful work environment for growers. And there's still a stigma attached to getting mental health help, Von Essen says. "Farmers are used to solving their own problems. They may just think they'll work through it."
The result: high rates of suicide and mental health issues, Reed says. "The older you get, the worse it becomes. Growers tend to age in place, and they equate health with the ability to work. When you're surrounded by work you can no longer do, it becomes overwhelmingly depressive."
Aging farmers should put a succession plan in place and start bringing in a younger farmer, Reed says. "By the time you can't work, you can sit back and watch them work and take care of the farm."
Self-care is crucial too, at any age. Take time to relax and find an outlet for stress, Von Essen says. "Aerobic exercise is important. Go for a walk, and get enough sleep."
4. Chemical exposure. Anhydrous ammonia probably causes the most problems for farmers, Von Essen says. "It can blind you and can cause an asthma-like response when inhaled."
When using farm chemicals, growers need to remember to wear appropriate equipment and know what to do if exposure occurs. Keep chemicals in their original containers, and post poison control numbers, Reed says. "Have people you can call. In rural areas, rescue squads can take a long time," she says. "Also, post directions to the farm.'"
Reading the product label is also critical. "The most important thing for growers to do is read and understand chemical labels," says Syngenta Health, Safety, Environmental & Safety Security Manager Scott Moore. "The label is law and provides a wealth of ways to protect against exposures."
5. Hearing loss. Half of growers over age 50 have hearing loss. "Hearing loss is still an issue," Garrett says. "People may think, ‘I'm only running the combine for a short time.' But it's all cumulative." Once hearing is gone, it is usually gone for good. You always want to protect what you still have.
As a rule of thumb, if growers need to raise their voices over whatever they're doing, they need hearing protection while doing it.
And one more practice that's always essential to good health, Garrett adds: Getting regular physical exams. "This would go for any profession. You may look and feel great, but many serious health threats - including many cancers, high blood pressure and heart disease - have no warning signs."