Why are older people twice as likely to die in a farm accident?

If you work on a farm and you’re 65 or over, statistics suggest you’re significantly less likely to make it home tonight than someone who is younger than you.

In what is already one of the UK’s most dangerous industries, latest figures suggest older people in agriculture are more than twice as likely to die in an accident on a farm than those who are younger.

According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data published last month, 21 farm workers and self-employed farmers lost their lives between April 2014 and March this year. Of those,11 were aged 65 and over.

The exact reasons why older farmers are more susceptible to fatalities are difficult to pinpoint. 

No clear trends

There are no clear trends in incidents involving those over 65, and research by the Farm Safety Foundation – a charity set up by rural insurer NFU Mutual to promote farm safety education – found that older farmers were actually less likely to take risks than younger farmers.

This makes the higher levels of fatalities a difficult issue to tackle, says Rick Brunt, HSE head of agriculture. 

“If you look at all the injuries [that happen on farms], then there’s actually more per thousand with younger farmers,” he says.

Falls from height, incidents involving cattle, workplace transport and injuries from equipment are the main causes of accidents in agriculture, regardless of age. Where the differences lie is in the effect of the accident. 

“There’s a degree of speculation about the ageing process,” says Mr Brunt. “While each person is different, as people get older their reactions tend to slow down, strength reduces and hearing and sight can diminish, making it harder to pick up warning signs.

“Some of these factors may come into play here, but the other thing is when you get to the very top of the age spectrum – people working in their 80s in farming is not uncommon – then the outcome of the accident can be much more severe.”

Working after retirement age

Working with cattle, for example, brings extra risks for older people, Mr Brunt explains.

“A younger person might have more ability to retain their balance if a cow knocks into them. If you are knocked into and you fall and hit your head, then the accident can have an entirely different outcome.”

The other reason that the fatality statistics are higher for older people is that – unlike other industries – people want to keep working for longer.

“People outside farming will retire at 60 or 65, but in agriculture people keep going, especially if they own their own farm,” Mr Brunt says.

“The nature of agriculture means that people are more likely to be working by themselves in remote areas, and that in itself can increase the risk,” he adds.

“It can be hard to summon help if you get trapped or injured, and if you’re older then that type of injury could be even more significant.”

Falls and livestock are biggest risks

The most common cause of death among older farmers over the past year was falling from height and incidents involving cattle.

Six people aged between 67 and 79 lost their lives across these two categories, HSE figures say.

Two people aged 71 and 72 died in separate incidents after their vehicles overturned, while a 71-year-old died on a farm in Spalding after coming into contact with machinery.

In two further accidents a 72-year-old farmer from Tamworth was killed after he was trapped by something collapsing, and a 68-year-old died after his vehicle was hit by an object.

The oldest person to be fatally injured was an 80-year-old self-employed farmer from Perthshire, who died after being hit by a vehicle. 

How can accidents be prevented?

Taking a common-sense approach to any working situation is vital to reducing accidents among older farmers and farm workers, says Mr Brunt.

“People need to consider their abilities as well as their experience, and be realistic about what they can do.

“If you are in a working situation with people across an age range, be honest and sensible about who does what. It can be difficult with a self-employed person, but on a family farm with other generations working together, try to spread the jobs.”

If a relative or worker has done a job all their life it can be difficult for them to change or become less involved, but in those situations it is important to talk to them about what work they are comfortable and able to do.

The Farm Safety Foundation says challenging unsafe behaviours that aren’t necessarily recognised is also important, such as the impact of tiredness, or tackling a job alone in order to save money.

“We are looking at working with the NFU to understand the situation better and see if we can come up with a sensible approach to help sort this,” Mr Brunt adds.

“And, of course, the standard safety measures of making sure equipment is well-maintained, knowing where people are working and making sure cattle-handling facilities are appropriate will all help in managing the risks.”