Sowing the seeds of change
There are over 550 fatal accidents in farming across the EU each year and farmers are seven times more likely to die in a workplace accident than members of the general workforce. Michael Cusack looks into the issues facing the industry and what needs to be done to curb the alarming figures.
Farming accounts for 7.7 per cent of the European Union workforce and over 40 per cent of the EU budget. Some EU countries and the United States experience a death rate of 30 agricultural workers per 100,000 while the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia experience a lower fatality rate of nine per 100,000.
With pressure growing on Europe’s farming communities to increase output there is a real risk that fatality rates will surge in the coming years. Working longer hours and more intensively inevitably increase the risk to agricultural workers.
The Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has stated that it expects world population to grow by over a third, or 2.3 billion people, between 2009 and 2050. These trends mean that market demand for food would continue to grow. Demand for cereals, for both food and animal feed uses are projected to reach some three billion tonnes by 2050.
The projections show that feeding a world population of 9.1 billion people in 2050 would require raising overall food production by some 70 per cent between 2005 and 2050. While much of the expansion will come from the developing world the further intensification of European farming is inevitable.
Provisional agricultural trade data from 2012 shows an extraordinary development with a net trade of €14.3bn.
The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was initially established to guarantee secure supplies of food for Europe’s citizens but is now a multi-faceted policy whose primary objectives are market-oriented sustainable food production, supporting the incomes of farmers, preservation of the environment and rural development.
The current deal agreed in June will run until 2019 but has done little to mitigate the increasing risks placed on our farming communities. With only six per cent of Europe’s farmers under the age of 35 it is a truly aging workforce. Aged, or ‘senior’ farmers, like most agricultural workers, are at risk of sustaining serious injuries.
According to Whitman and Field, senior farmers may be at additional risk due to normal physical and sensory deficits associated with ageing.1 Hernandez-Peck
adds that conditions frequently associated with age (i.e. arthritis, impaired vision and hearing, and depression) potentially make the demands of daily farming extremely dangerous for the older farmer.2
Separate studies by Lago and Murphy
identify other risks that increase older farmers’ susceptibility to injury. These include use of prescription drugs, sensory loss, loss in muscle and skeletal strength, slower reaction time, more rapid fatigue, and a reduced ability to handle tasks such as operating agricultural machinery under time stress, and reliance on automatic rather than attentive behaviours.3,4
A Danish study5
indicated that farm stressors (including perceived economic problems), stress symptoms, and safety behaviour were predictors of occupational farm accidents.
Higher levels of stressors and stress symptoms and poor safety behaviour were all associated with an elevated risk of injury. For stress symptoms, the relation with accidents occurred via an interaction with safety behaviour. The combination of high levels of stress symptoms and poor safety behaviour was associated with a particularly high accident risk.
The new CAP agreement will see additional payments to farmers under the age of 40 from 2015. This is a welcome development but there are no Europe-wide retirement programmes for elderly farmers to exit the industry nor are there any incentives to encourage younger people, who face considerable establishment costs to enter the sector.
At present 4.5 million farmers in Europe (30 per cent) are over 65. Europe has 12 million farmers and an average farm size of about 15 hectares (by way of comparison, the US has two million farmers and an average farm size of 180 hectares).
Taking Ireland as an example we can see a number of worrying trends. Firstly, of the 140,000 farm units in operation 92 per cent of these farmers are self-employed. Secondly, the 2012 census figures show the average age of farmers stands at 54.
This aging workforce faces a number of concerns, such as production pressure, lone working and an increasing risk of musculoskeletal injuries.
The CAP has used cross-compliance to create synergies between CAP payments and the need to ensure compliance with basic mandatory standards. Cross-compliance is a mechanism that links direct payments to compliance by farmers with basic standards concerning the environment, food safety, animal health and welfare, plant health, as well as the requirement of maintaining land in good agricultural and environmental condition.
Policy instruments such as the single payment scheme (SPS) have impacted on safety. For example, under the SPS, farmers must have suitable storage facilities for pesticides and milking facilities must be maintained in good repair.
In Ireland, funding requirements under the Rural Development Plan (RDP) have led to farm safety improvements. For instance, the creation of external slurry agitation points and safety covers has reduced the risk of farmers being overcome by gasses and falling into pits.
Could the CAP be used to further strengthen safety standards in agriculture? There may be opportunities and a strong argument to use the policy to encourage farmers to introduce further engineering controls and participate in safety training programmes. Education is key to successful farm safety management and programmes which require farmers to carry out risk assessments and also produce farm specific safety documents that may reap rewards.
Teagasc, Ireland’s agriculture and food development authority found that there was a 35 per cent increase in injuries on farms between 2006 and 2011. Farmers in Ireland are 10 times more likely to be killed at work than in any other occupation. The Dalley survey found that the cost of the average accident was €2,000. Despite the magnitude of the financial losses associated with accidents at work, Mossink and De Greef
reported that it is difficult to convince employers and decision makers of the financial benefits of workplace accident prevention.6
Interestingly, there appears to be an acute awareness within the farming community of the need to implement controls yet the rate of fatalities remains high. Understanding what drives (un)safe behaviours appears to be a real challenge.
Stephan Van den Broucke, professor of health, psychology, and prevention at the Catholic University in Louvain in Belgium, has suggested that in order to have a certain behaviour we will have been influenced by motivation, attitudes and social and perceived norms. He has found that there is often little difference in the behaviour of people who have completed safety training and those who have not. Van den Broucke believes there are cues to action that trigger attitudes and put behaviour into practice.
This belief has been put into practice by a County Offaly farmers discussion group which recently won the EU Occupational Safety and Health Good Practice Award.
The discussion group was reformed in 2007 and now has 15 dairy farmer members who meet monthly on members’ farms to discuss and improve the farms, including the area of health and safety.
Each member has completed an electronic risk assessment on their farm at farmsafely.com, and carried out health and safety controls, including reducing risks for children and older farmers, assessing the safety of chemicals, reducing risks from using machinery and improving farm buildings.
In total, over 190 actions have been taken to reduce or eliminate hazards, and the group says its project has the potential to save the life of a group or family member.
Brendan McGarry, a member of the group, said that when safety management was first proposed as a project he and other members were admittedly reluctant. However, the action trigger in this case occurred when the group watched a series of testimonial videos entitled Survivor Stories produced by the Health & Safety Authority which introduced real farmers and showed how accidents have had a major impact on their lives, on families and on business. He added that as the project developed it was not legal requirements that motivated the group but rather an element of peer pressure and the development of a new social norm.
Similarities can be drawn with the Australian Institute of Male Health Studies’ 2012 study into the health status and behaviours of Australian farming men. The research found that farming men were interested in their own health, their partner’s health, and the ultimate health of their families and farms.
Over a six-year period the Sustainable Farm Families programme has demonstrated that men are willing to address health concerns and maintain positive health behaviours through education, assessment, and also through group learning practices.
In the United States significant resources are devoted to conducting farm safety day camps for children. The University of Alabama conducted research into the effectiveness of the Progressive Farmer Farm Safety Day Camp programme which covers topics such as first aid safety around animals, All Terrain Vehicles (ATV)s, farm equipment, flowing grains, and tractors.
It found there was an increase in knowledge scores and a decrease in behaviour risk scores and ATV safety gear risk scores. These changes were consistent both for males and females, for farm residents and non-farm residents, and across all ages in the sample. These results support claims for the effectiveness of farm safety day camps for increasing knowledge and improving safe practices among camp participants.
Farming communities can be rewarded for consistently improving safety performance. In Finland there is a premium discount programme in the farmers’ workers’ compensation insurance scheme.
The scheme for self-employed farmers, fishermen and reindeer herders offers a 10 per cent discount on premiums after a claims-free period of one year. Then, every following claim-free year adds another 10 per cent off up to a maximum of 50 per cent after five consecutive claim-free years.
A Finnish study in 20057 concluded that the relatively low decrease in no-lost-time claims and relatively high decreases in moderate lost-time claims, suggest that the decreases cannot be explained by under reporting alone and that the premium discount has a preventative effect.
Similar discount programmes could be implemented in other EU countries in insurance schemes for self-employed farmers. The general approach is transferable although there are differences between countries’ laws, insurance systems and policies. Insurance savings have been made by farmers with a good safety record in the United States. The Vermont Farm Safety pilot programme and the Iowa Certified Safe Farm intervention programme, for example, both found that farmers receiving intervention experience lower costs for occupational injuries and illness.
These studies and programmes from around the world demonstrate that by empowering communities the bar can be raised with regard to standards in safety and health performance. Perhaps it is time to look at stimulating behaviour modelling and safety performance as part of a greater European farm policy.
A policy which supports farmers to deliver on safety performance and enables them to create new social norms within their communities is certainly food for thought.
1. Whitman, S.D. and W.E. Field. (1995) Assessing senior farmers’ perceptions of tractor and machinery-related hazards. Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health, volume 1, issue 3
3. Lago, D. (1999). Aging and farm safety: a gerontological view. Unpublished manuscript.
5. Glasscock D.J., K.Rasmussen, O.Cartensen and O.N. Hansen. (2006) Psychological factors and safety behaviour as predictors of accidental work injuries in farming work and stress.
7. Rautiainen RH, Ohsfeldt R, Sprince NL, Donham KJ, Burmeister LF, Reynolds SJ, Saarimaki P, Zwerling, (2005) Cost of compensated injuries and occupational diseases in agriculture in Finland. Journal of Agromedicine, volume 10, issue 3
Michael Cusack is the current chair of the IOSH Ireland Rural Industries Section – see page 4 for more information
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