A terrible toll: Farming still claims too many lives

The latest statistics 
show an encouraging but modest decline in the number of farm fatalities

The number of people killed in farm accidents continues to decline, but a new report also says “there is no more dangerous occupation” than farming.

The average number of fatalities fell from 116 annually from 1990 to 2001 to 84 in the latest 10-year reporting period (2003 to 2012), according to Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting data.

But despite that downward trend, farm safety groups are battling a “certain fatalism” that is keeping farm fatality rates higher than they need to be, said Don Voaklander, director of the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta.

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“It’s all taken with a grain of salt — ‘We have our way of doing things, thank you very much,’” said Voaklander. “Farmers say, ‘This is our lifestyle. Some of these activities might be risky and we accept that risk. And when we raise our children, it’s important for them to be exposed to a certain amount of risk for them to become the person we want them to be.’

“It’s a little bit saddening that that hasn’t changed.”

The decrease in fatality rates is a positive sign, said Voaklander, but when you factor in the declining farm population (1.1 million in 1990 versus 630,000 in 2012), the decline is much more modest — just 1.1 per cent annually.

In 1990, there were 14.1 fatalities for every 100,000 people living or working on farms. It was only in 1998 that the number fell below 13 per 100,000 and it took until 2005 before it declined to below 12. In 2012, there were 11.0 fatalities for every 100,000 individuals in the farm population.

“When compared with other Canadian industrial sectors, agriculture is a dangerous occupation,” states the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting study. “Agriculture ranks as the fourth most hazardous industry in Canada with respect to rates of fatal injury. In terms of absolute numbers of fatalities, there is no more dangerous occupation.”

And experience is no shield.

Although the 15-to-59 age group accounted for 50 per cent of all fatalities from 2003 to 2012, the risk goes up with age. During that time period, the overall death rate averaged 11.9 fatalities per 100,000 people. That number climbed sharply to 19.0 for the 60-to-69 age group and then soared to 56.4 for those 80 and older.

“Unlike other industries, it is common for farmers and ranchers to work full time and to operate tractors and other heavy machinery well into their 70s and 80s,” the report noted.

But no one was spared. During that 10-year span, 84 children aged 14 or younger were killed in farm accidents; 386 people aged 15 to 59 died; and another 369 people aged 60 or over were killed. (The number of people over age 80 living and/or working on farms actually grew from 8,252 in 1990 to 13,055 in 2012.)

“Older adults (60-plus years) consistently had higher fatality rates than children and adults,” the report states. “The fatality rates for children and adults are very similar.”

Leading causes

Three types of farm machinery accidents were the leading cause of death.

Run-overs killed 149 people during the decade from 2003 to 2012, or 18 per cent of the total. Thirty-one were bystanders and children were often the victim — nine were between the ages of one and four, and another 22 were between the ages of four and nine years.

“We’re still getting kids run over in the farmyard, even though there’s been numerous campaigns and educational programs about keeping very small children out of — for all intents and purposes — an industrial workplace,” said Voaklander. “You still have people supervising kids while they’re doing agricultural work with machinery.”

Once again, farming tragically stands out in this regard.

“Agriculture is unique in that children and the elderly sustain significant numbers of severe work-related injuries,” the report states. “This is partly because farms and ranches are not just work sites, but also places where people of all ages live and participate in recreational activities.”

Rollovers took another 143 lives. The third most common cause of death was being pinned or struck by a machine component.

Preventable accidents

And the root cause behind these fatalities is “old habits,” said Voaklander.

“In the agricultural setting, if you’re relying on old habits to get you through, you’re not doing a hazard assessment,” he said. “Most of these incidents are predictable and preventable if someone takes a step back and takes a minute to really think through their next steps.

“There are choices people make because they have old habits, and 90 per cent of the time it doesn’t get you in trouble. But that one time, it’s going to bite you.”

Although the report is largely an analysis of the statistics, its authors (including Voaklander) are clear that the high rates of injury and death aren’t solely because of the “unique nature of the agricultural work environment.”

“In most jurisdictions, agriculture is not a heavily regulated industry in terms of occupational health and safety standards,” the report states. “Unlike other industrial workplaces, many Canadian agricultural workplaces have not benefited from modern industrial hygiene and safety practices. There has traditionally been reliance on voluntary, rather than regulatory safety standards, but the effectiveness of voluntary safety standards has not been well evaluated.”

While legislation like the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act might “incentivize” farmers to adopt safety standards for their farm workers, there’s a “gap” for farm families.

“What is of most concern to me is that everything we’ve done with legislation really doesn’t target the high-risk groups — 65 to 70 per cent of farm fatalities are to people who would be considered farm family, and none of the legislation really targets that group,” said Voaklander.

“There’s no real accountability for injuries that occur to the farm family right now. We’ve moved so far to protect the farm worker, but not the farm family.”

And there’s no easy answer.

“All we can do is keep harping away on awareness. As we have a generational change and people become more familiar with occupational health and safety in general, hopefully things will change,” said Voaklander.

“The family farm hasn’t been the target of all the legislation we’ve seen so far, so it’s up to farm safety groups and individual farmers to make the best of the work they do to keep their families safe.”

The data is collected from agencies across the country, such as the provincial coroner or chief medical examiner. Collection of the data is co-ordinated by the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta.

— With files from Glenn Cheater

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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