Farmer's life not so healthy after all


THE PERCEPTION that farming is a healthy occupation has been challenged by new research that has found more than 60 per cent of farmers had “significant health problems” in the previous year.

Musculoskeletal problems such as back, neck, shoulder and joint pain accounted for most of these complaints. Some 90 per cent of farmers with health problems said they were musculoskeletal.

The findings were part of a four-year research project by Teagasc’s Aoife Osbourne, which was supported by the Health and Safety Authority and supervised by UCD.

It found that larger-scale full-time farms, particularly dairy farms, had the highest risk of work-related musculoskeletal problems. Tillage farmers were more likely to have ear disorders. Sheep farmers were more likely to report poor health than farmers in other sectors, perhaps because of their older age profile. Farmers were less likely to attend GPs than other sectors of the public. Only half of farmers said they took part in a physical activity in leisure time, compared with 81 per cent of the general population.

Ms Osbourne’s research project was undertaken from 2008 to 2012 and used data from Teagasc’s National Farm Survey, which involved more than 1,100 farmers, a further survey involving 600 farmers, as well as several individual case studies.

She said farmers blamed “being young and foolish” for the manual handling incidents that caused ongoing problems such as lower back pain. She quoted one who said: “I did a lot of horsing around when I was younger, lifting things I shouldn’t have been lifting. When I was younger it was like, go, go, go – and if it had to be done, it had to be done. You had this Herculean thing about you.”

One farmer estimated that his back injury had reduced his farm income by 20 per cent.

The findings were outlined at a seminar in Athy, Co Kildare, on the occupational health of farmers, organised by Teagasc and the Health and Safety Authority.

Dr Catherine Blake of UCD’s school of public health, physiotherapy and performance science said there was a perception that farming was a healthy occupation because of its outdoor nature. However, the reality was that farming presented many risks, such as physical injury from machinery or livestock, chemical and airborne hazards and musculoskeletal disorders.

She said only 6 per cent of the workforce worked in agriculture but 40 per cent of fatal work injuries occurred in the sector.

Machinery and vehicles caused the most farm deaths between 2000 and 2009, followed by livestock, drowning/gas and falls. International research has found farmers are one of the main recipients of hip replacements, with one in five farmers needing a new hip in their lifetime.

Teagasc director Prof Gerry Boyle said injury prevention and good health were “vital lifestyle and farm business sustainability issues for farmers” and there were many inexpensive technologies available to farmers to avoid manual handling of loads.

Pat Griffin of the Health and Safety Authority urged farmers to think more carefully before lifting, pulling or dragging items.

Farmer's health: In numbers


of farmers took part in a physical activity in leisure time, compared with . . .


of the general population


of farmers reported musculoskeletal problems