Farm Ireland

Sunday 17 December 2017

Working on the farm can be bad for your health

One in two fa rmers has experienced back pain and one in five will need a hip replacement at some stage. However, those who work the land are 'excessively positive' about their health. A new study warns that it's time to get real and take action

An Irish study found that illness and disease were the primary causes of disability among farmers, and 56pc of those questioned said they experienced a bone, joint or muscle problem
An Irish study found that illness and disease were the primary causes of disability among farmers, and 56pc of those questioned said they experienced a bone, joint or muscle problem

Aoife Osborne

Many people, including farmers, are under the impression that farming is a healthy outdoor occupation. The reality, however, is very different.

Farming can be a hazardous activity that presents a wide range of threats to health. Indeed, last week's tragedies, which cost the lives of a child and farmer, and took the total number of farm-related deaths for the year to 23, once again highlighted the dangers associated with farming.

However, farming also presents a range of health threats such as occupational illness and injury. It is one of the few work sectors where families live on the premises and often share the work, therefore both the farmer and the farm family may be at risk of fatal and non-fatal farm injuries and health problems.

International research shows links between health and injury levels. For instance, a study from Finland established that farmers who reported health complaints experienced higher injury rates.

The number of machines used is a risk factor for injuries, as is having already musculoskeletal disorders due to heavy lifting. An American study in Iowa also established that hurry, fatigue, or stress were contributing factors in most injuries.

In Ireland, a study of the impact of disability on the farm business carried out by Teagasc Walsh Fellow Shane Whelan identified illness/disease as the primary cause of disability among farmers.

Farms reporting disability due to conditions such as arthritis, back problems or heart/circulatory problems experienced a lower family farm income (€123/ha) than farms not reporting disability.

Clearly, health is vital to be effective as a farmer, given that occupational illness and injury are associated with reduced work ability, lower farm income, and poorer quality of life. Poor health or disability can also lead to the onset of other health problems including stress or depression.

Also Read

Teagasc/Health and Safety Authority Initiative

At an international level, occupational health is being given greater attention because it is now recognised that ill health can be considered as an accident in slow motion and poor health leads to increased injuries.

Against this background, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and Teagasc recognised the need to investigate health issues among farmers. They have placed a priority on improving occupational health as a component of their joint Health and Safety Prevention Initiative in agriculture.

As part of this initiative, a research Walsh Fellowship was awarded to investigate Occupational Health among Irish farmers.

This project began in 2008 and will finish in 2012. It involves a multidisciplinary collaboration with the UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Population Science, and UCD School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine.

Farmer health survey

The occupational health study commenced with a survey on health of more than 600 farmers. In this survey, 77pc of farmers reported experiencing a health problem in the previous year. Fifty-six pc reported experiencing a bone, joint or muscle problem and 21pc reported having another significant health problem.

However, despite the numerous health problems farmers encounter, the majority who filled out the questionnaire rated their health to be very good (40pc) and good (40pc), with very few rating their health as fair (2pc) and poor (0.5pc).

This and other studies indicate that farmers as a group, in common with men in general, are excessively positive about their health, which may lead them into a false sense of security regarding taking health promoting actions.

However, one very positive finding was that 72pc of farmers had attended a health professional in the previous 12 months and this was similar to 74pc of the general Irish population.

This contrasts with national surveys conducted in the late 1990s which indicated that only about 35pc of farmers had a regular health check.

This is a crucial behaviour change, as having a regular health check is vital for early detection of ill health and is a practice that should be adopted by farmers when they are young as it becomes more intimidating as one gets older.

The most frequently attended health profession reported in this study was medical doctors.

Although farming can be regarded as an active occupation, the use of machinery in farm work has increased in recent years.

Therefore, it is important that farmers keep themselves physically fit and flexible to help avoid ill health and injury and to improve their overall wellbeing. However, only half of the farmers surveyed participated in any sporting or physical leisure activity in their spare time.

This initial occupational health questionnaire was conducted among farmers attending advisory and training events but a nationally representative survey has been conducted in conjunction with the National Farm Survey and is currently being analysed.

Musculoskeletal disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are defined as a group of disorders that affect the musculoskeletal system including the nerves, tendons, muscles, and supporting structures. Because of the physical nature of farm work, farmers and farm workers are at particular risk of developing MSDs. MSDs, along with general health problems, are the major preventable health issues identified by the survey.

The most commonly experienced MSD among farmers was back pain (37pc), compared to 16pc of the general Irish population and 22pc of the Irish working population.

Back pain was found to be more common among full-time farmers than part-time farmers. This suggests that full-time farmers are exposed to greater repetitive back strain than their part-time counterparts.

Heavy lifting

Fifty percent of farmers reported a significant episode of low back pain at some point in their life. The most common cause cited for this was from lifting incorrectly or lifting heavy weights.

Over half of the farmers who experienced low back pain had to change their working habits and one-third needed assistance carrying out certain farm tasks.

Some of the low back pain consequences that farmers reported were being unable to milk cows, too sore to handle small animal such as sheep, or not capable of spending as long in tractors. These farmers either changed their enterprise or needed assistance to carry out a task that they can no longer perform by themselves.

Other MSDs

Other MSDs experienced in the previous year included hand/ wrist/elbow pain (10pc), knee pain (9pc), ankle/foot pain (9pc) and hip pain (8pc).

On comparison of profiles of farmers with and without a MSD, no differences were found in age, years farming, farm enterprise or engagement in work off-farm.

Only the number of hours worked per day was found to be higher among those with an MSD, suggesting fatigue or greater length of exposure, arising from longer hours worked, rather than enterprise specific tasks, were factors in developing such a condition.

Hip problems

Farmers who reported hip problems were older, had farmed over a longer period, had worked longer hours and comprised of more full-time operators.

International research findings indicate that farmers may have higher rates of osteoarthritis of the hip compared with other occupational groups, especially if they have farmed for over 10 years. It has also been estimated that as many as one in five farmers may eventually require hip replacement.

Although precise causes of hip osteoarthritis in farmers have not yet been defined, potential risk factors include regular heavy lifting, prolonged standing and walking over rough ground and vibration from tractor driving.

The lessons

The key message for farmers is that their health has to be viewed as their wealth, and its true value is not appreciated until it is lost.

The key first step is to realise the benefit of one's health and take appropriate steps to maintain or enhance it. Teagasc will be regularly featuring health issues at its events and in publications as part of its Joint Health and Safety Prevention Initiative with the Health and Safety Authority.

Further research into this topic conducted as part of the Occupational Health Walsh Fellowship will be used to devise new ill health and injury prevention programmes.

Aoife Osborne is a graduate in Agricultural Science from UCD. She is currently doing a PhD on the occupation health of farmers, which is funded by the Teagasc/Health and Safety Authority Walsh Fellowship

Irish Independent