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Aging Workforce, Equipment Make For Deadly Farming Combination

Ann Fisher

  Farm fatalities jumped by almost 40 percent in Indiana in 2014, according to Purdue University’s annual Farm Fatality Survey.

Two trends stand out among the survey’s data: Of the 25 farming-related deaths last year, nearly a third were from tractors overturning, and almost two-thirds were the result of some sort of machinery-related incident. Also, a full three-quarters of ag-related deaths in the state were of people younger than 18 or older than 60.

According to survey author, Purdue ag safety expert and professor Bill Field, the two aren’t unrelated. Because farm equipment is massively expensive to replace, Field says aging farmers frequently use older, more unsafe machines without, for example, rollover protections:

They’re still involved in doing chores, using older equipment that might not be as safe” he says. “It just exposes them to a lot more risk.”

The average age of the American farmer keeps creeping up, putting older workers in danger.

“There is an increasing number of older farmers who are still working and involved in fairly hazardous activities,” Field says. “As a result, we’re seeing a really disproportionate number of fatalities.”

David Mannino, a physician and researcher at the University of Kentucky, says many farmers never retire – “they work until the day they drop.” That makes them that much more likely to be involved in a fatal accident.

A younger person who sort of feels a tractor getting ready to turn over might be able to jump out of the tractor and get out of the way,” he says. “An older person may not be able to move as quickly and protect themselves.”

Both Field and Mannino say the rise of part-time and hobby farming also puts more people at risk for fatal injuries, because, like older farmers, they are most likely to be using older equipment they find at auctions and estate sales.

The survey indicates because of the high number of tractor-related deaths, protective structures inside farm implements could help. However, because of the myriad reasons for death, it’s difficult to pinpoint what other preventative actions should be taken.

The annual survey compiles data from news reports, web searches and voluntary reporting. Since 1970, the survey has seen a steady decline in farming fatalities, which it attributes to better medical practices and fewer children working in ag. However, the number has somewhat stagnated in the past 15 years, averaging at around 20 fatalities annually.

According to the state’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, Indiana’s agricultural, forestry, fishing and hunting industry experienced the highest number of fatalities of any Hoosier injury in 2014. 

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