As much as we try to wish it away, aging is inevitable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that in 2015, 33 million Americans employed in the workforce were 55 and older, and 1.3 million were actively seeking work. Also, older workers aged 65+ were employed at double the rate in 2015 than teenage workers (8.4 million vs. 4.7 million).
While the average age of the workforce in agriculture is 36, we still see a vast number of older folks continuing work in the fields. However, the average age of farm principal operators (owners, growers, and crew leaders) jumped slightly too: from 57.1 years old in 2007 to 58.3 years old in 2012. BLS estimates that by 2022, a large percent of aging workers will start to remain at home. However, the pattern of aging workforce within agriculture is sure to remain constant until our nation’s broken immigration reform is brought to justice, and while we continue paying low wages to the migrant and seasonal farmworker community.
With age comes wisdom, but also (in many cases) health issues such as arthritis, limited vision and hearing, and depression that could be potentially dangerous in farm tasks. Agricultural workers are exposed to extreme working conditions that may create detrimental effects that reverberate throughout life. For example, delayed health effects may occur from chronic daily exposure to pesticides which include diverse types of cancers, neurological damage, reproductive challenges, diabetes, and more. Other delayed health effects commonly include ergonomic and musculoskeletal injuries from working hunched over and kneeling down. As if this is not enough, access to health care is very limited due to immigration status, lack of transportation, language barriers, and more.
If you have ever worked even an hour in a kneeling position, you probably know it hurts not only your knees but your back too. Imagine working like this for years, and continuing it into your golden years: it takes a big toll.
So, how can elderly farmworkers prevent these ailments? The first step is to demand workers’ rights to a safe and healthy work environment: for example, adequate equipment, tools, and clothing and time frame to perform agricultural tasks.
Stretch before starting to work and in between breaks.
Drink plenty of water and eat a healthy, natural diet.
Go to the doctor. Annual checkups help prevent future health issues.
Protect the body from pesticide exposure by using long sleeve shirts (like those we’ll be collecting in March’s National Long Sleeve Shirt Drive), long pants, closed shoes, and following the label instructions when handling pesticides. AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs promotes a positive work environment by providing workers with education on how to protect themselves and their rights.
And last but not least, as you surpass your 50’s, consider leaving more of the farm work to younger folks. Your body has certainly earned that break.
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