Farmers seldom retire but the risk of a serious accident soars in the golden years

Portage farmer says his tragic tale should be a lesson to older farmers 
to think safety and take simple precautions

Roy Vust suspects it was his foot slipping off the clutch that probably caused the tractor he was driving to rear up and tip over backwards.

But he’s certain that if his Allis Chalmers D19 had a rollover protection structure on it, he wouldn’t have been pinned between the tractor and the 10-foot Woods mower he’d been using to cut the ditches on his Portage la Prairie-area farm that summer night in 2001. And if he hadn’t been pinned, he could have escaped more quickly and not suffered the burns to his legs and upper body when fuel spilled on his clothes and ignited.

Vust thought a lot about that during his time in hospital and his year of recovery — and he has a simple message for those too busy with work to implement a farm safety program.

“You don’t get much done from the hospital bed,” he says today. “And you get nothing done from the graveyard.”

When he bought a replacement tractor, it had a rollover protective cab. And Vust became a spokesman for farm safety, telling his cautionary tale many times, and also volunteer chair of Manitoba Farmers With Disabilities, whose members also share their stories with the public.

His message — Work safer, Live longer — is one his peers need to hear more than ever, says the 69-year-old.

That’s because there are more older farmers than ever. While the overall number of farmers has declined over the past three decades, those aged 70 to 79 rose 10 per cent (to 33,509 as of 2008) and the number of those age 80-plus jumped by half (7,334 in 1990 versus 11,220 in 2008).

A disproportionate number of these older farmers will suffer a serious injury or be killed while working on the farm. The latest figures from the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting program say there are an average of 37 deaths per year of farmers over age 60.

But older farmers aren’t generating the statistics because there’s more of them around.

“They have more injuries and fatalities per capita,” said Don Voaklander, director of the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research in Edmonton.

“They’re always a group that stands out as being a high risk. At about age 50, the per capita rate starts to rise. Then the 60- to 70-year-old has a higher rate, and then 70- to 80-(year-old) a higher rate again.”

This type of injury and death rate isn’t seen in other sectors, but farmers and ranchers seldom retire, and often continue to operate heavy machinery and do the other sorts of risky work they’ve always done.

Physical limitations

Many just can’t see they no longer have the physical ability they had in their 40s or 50s, said Vust, who retired in 2007 after more than 40 years of farming.

“It’s pretty hard for us old guys who’ve done it all our lives to pass on some of those more physical jobs,” he said.

“But you just don’t have the stamina and the capabilities of working at the same pace you once did. As we age, we don’t hear as good as we once did and we probably don’t see as good as we once did. And the muscle tone and strength and flexibility start to decline.”

Recognizing your limitations doesn’t mean you have to pack it in, he said.

“I’ve always felt you can make it up by working smarter,” said Vust.

“We just need to start asking, ‘Why should I have to climb to the top of that bin’ if there’s another, younger fellow around. Let’s train him to do it safely and allow him to use his younger body to accomplish the job.”

Experts say older farmers should regularly do a self-assessment, in order to recognize how their physical or cognitive abilities may have changed, and to adjust their work accordingly.

And a farm with older workers should also have a ‘check-in’ or communications plan. Unfortunately, older workers are frequently discovered long after the accident because they were working alone and couldn’t call for help.

Vust knows about that — after extinguishing the flames, he started walking down the road and calling out for help. Fortunately, a neighbour had spotted the fire and came to investigate.

“I wasn’t carrying a cellphone at the time,” said Vust.

Today’s technology means you can, and should be, keeping in touch with those you work with, Voaklander said.

“Younger farmers are doing this all the time with texting and cellphones,” he said. “The older farmers maybe not so much. But they should have a walkie-talkie or something that lets them check in every few hours.”

Once he returned to farming, Vust made sure his wife or someone else always knew exactly where he was working, what he was doing, and what time to expect him back.

On industrial worksites, workers take an ‘everyone looking after everyone else’ approach and that’s how farms should operate, Voaklander said.

“It’s taking care of your partner,” he said.

‘Get with the Plan’ is the theme of this year’s Canadian Agricultural Safety Week, which runs March 10-16, and the goal is to encourage farmers to create a health and safety plan and put it in writing. For more information, see www.agsafety week.ca.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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