By Dr. Mike Rosmann
March 7, 2016
Agricultural occupations, defined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as farming, ranching, farm worker, forestry, and commercial fishing, have the highest rate of occupation-related deaths, according to a 2015 U.S. Department of Labor report that analyzed dataaccumulated for 2013.
The fatality rate of 22.2 per 100,000 personswas well above transportation/warehousing (13.1 per 100,000), mining/quarrying and oil/gas extraction (12.3 per 100,000), and construction (9.4 per 100,000).
A 2015 Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America (ASHCA) publication says approximately 480 U.S. farmershave died each recent yearin agriculture-related events, which is about half the number of yearly agriculture-related fatalities during the early 1990s. Although progress is occurring in reducing farming-related fatalities, there is still room for improvement.
Tractors are the main cause of farming-related deaths—about 125 annually according to ASCHA. Many of these fatalities and many serious injuries could have been prevented if roll-over protection systems (ROPS) were mandated for tractors.
In Sweden the number of tractor-rollover fatalities has declined to near zero annually, as almost all tractors now have mandatory ROPS.
About 115 children 0-18 years of age succumbed annually in a recent U.S. report of agricultural fatalities but only 20 percent were actively working. The other 80 percent were bystanders or playing in agricultural settings.
The current rate of child fatalities on farms is about half of what it was a generation ago. Grass-roots efforts like farm safety day camps, Extension workshops, and theFarm Safety For Just Kidsorganization are among the main contributors to the reduction in childhood fatalities.
What are the costs of farming-related fatalities and injuries? In 2015 the average age of the primary farm operator,and his/her retirement, were 59 and 74 respectively; the average net farm incomeper household was $123,432, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.
Multiplying the average net farm income by 15 years of earning capacity yields an estimated loss of $1.85 million per farm operation. The costsof a farmer’s death to his/her family and community are greater- perhaps incalculable, for the emotional pain they suffer and the knowledge and leadership which are no longer available.
Non-life threatening injuries take a toll too, for about 61,000 agriculture-related injuries occurred in 2015. ASHCA estimated their medical costs and lost productivity at $8.3 billion.
ASHCA noted that every day about 167 agricultural workers suffer lost work-time and 5 percent of these events involve permanent impairments.
Are farming-related psychological fatalities due to suicide, and injuries such as anxiety and depression, decreasing like farming-related physical fatalities and injuries are decreasing? No!
Men involved in agriculture have been much more likely to undertake suicide (about 25 per 100,000) than women (about 5 per 100,000) and about 60 percent more likely than non-farming men to finalize their lives. For as long as reliable data have been available (about 40 years), the yearly rate of farming-related suicides has generally been greater than fatalities due to physical events, and closely tied to farm economic conditions.
Sometimes suicides by farm men more than doubled, such as during the worst part of the 1980s’ Farm Crisis. Furthermore, it isn’t known how many more farming-related deaths were purposefully unreported, such as events that were disguised as “accidents” to enable survivors to collect life insurance.
Psychological injuries like anxiety and depressive illnesses and resultant lost days of work on the farm are probably also underreported. Few people farming have unemployment insurance coverage; others want to “tough it out” and don’t seek professional help when needed.
The prevalence of reported serious psychological injuries due to anxiety and depression for the agricultural population is considerably higher than for the general U.S. population, as the recent series of Farm and Ranch Life articles about the behavioral health of people engaged in agriculture pointed out.
The annual prevalence for one or both of these disorders is about 14 percent among the general population and about 20 percent among the agricultural population during profitable farming eras, but higher during stressful eras. The cost of lost productivity due to psychological injuries isprobably greater than for physical injuries, but not fully known.
Why do NIOSH and other federal programs not spend more dollars on the prevention of agricultural injuries and fatalities of a psychological nature? The answer is partly that NIOSH and other federal funding sources are insufficient, mostly because the majority of current federal elected officials don’t place priority on behavioral health jeopardies. Moreover, few private agriculture-related foundations and corporations offer research, training or educational funds for agricultural behavioral health and safety. It’s easier to generate legislative and public sentiment, and financial investment, for crop and livestock insurance programs and physical health issues than for psychological protections of the people engaged in agricultural occupations.
American residents and institutions could doing much more to prevent farmer suicides and behavioral health perils. Farmers are our country’s most important resource in farming.
Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa psychologist and farmer. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer and Reproduction Information: Information in NASD does not represent NIOSH policy. Information included in NASD appears by permission of the author and/or copyright holder. More