'Farmers need to stop allowing their work to cause long-lasting health problems'

Conor Kane

Farmers need to stop allowing their work to cause long-lasting health problems and become a generally healthier people, a conference on farmer health has heard.

Senior inspector with the Health and Safety Authority, Pat Griffin, told the seminar in Kilkenny that, in the past, the emphasis in Ireland was on farm safety rather than farmer health and the HSA has been working to change that.

“We need to do more about health,” Mr Griffin said. “If you watch farmers going into a mart anywhere in this country, there’s a lot of them crooked and a lot of them dragging legs and they have got back pain and health has often been badly, badly affected by farming. We need to become a healthier people.”

The HSA inspector was speaking at an event on Wednesday on “practical wellbeing for farming and rural communities” organised by the rural industries section of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and approved by the Department of Agriculture.

He pointed out that 550 people have died on our farms in the last 27 years, since he joined the HSA, and added that the catalogue of death and injury, “and indeed ill-health,” in agriculture has to stop.

Academic and researcher Diana Van Doorn, who was one of those selected for a Teagasc Walsh Fellowship to further her research in agriculture, pointed out that while surveys have shown better health outcomes for farmers in some continental European countries, because of the benefits of working outdoors and getting regular exercise through work, this is not the case in some countries including Australia and Ireland.

Irish farmers are seven times more likely to die from heart disease than the rest of the population, she said, as well as three times more likely to die from cancer.

Risk factors for cardio-vascular disease include

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  • being overweight or obese
  • High cholestorol
  • High blood pressure
  • High BMI
  • Family history
  • Alcohol use
  • Tobacco use
  • Stress.

The Farmers Have Hearts Programme, which involved free heart checks being offered to farmers at marts and in which Ms Van Doorn was involved, indicated that 81pc of farmers have four or more of the above factors.

Meanwhile, the research found that 42pc of the farmers checked out wouldn’t have gone for a heart check if they weren’t being offered at their mart.

Other conditions for which farmers appear to be higher risk include lower back pain, respiratory diseases, and mental health issues.

“It’s not a nice picture,” she said, “I think every cloud has a silver lining and most of this is all lifestyle, and not communicable disease.”

What can make farmers more susceptible to some of these health problems include:

  • coming from a lower socio-economic group
  • Having lower educational attainment
  • Limited access to health services
  • Rural isolation
  • Social exclusion
  • “Hard to reach” group for health promotion, services and so on
  • A breakdown of farming communities caused by a migration from the land.

“It’s hard to plan farming, and if you want to see a doctor, you have to plan a visit,” she said.

However, it’s something farmers should consider.

“Ill health and injury can negatively impact on farmers.”

The good news is that, as part of further research into the issue, “the health checks start tomorrow,” Diana Van Doorn added.

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