Aging is the body’s natural progression through life. With it, we take the good – acquiring great knowledge, wisdom and experience – with the not so good – impaired physical agility, changing appearance, reduced sensory acuity, etc. It’s the bittersweet part of life. In fact, the U.S. Census estimates that 41 million people aged 55 plus are currently living in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has calculated that, as of 2014, 40% of that population, “were working or actively looking for work,” and, according to the CDC, this number is rapidly increasing.
A few things to consider when age meets employment:
- Due to advances in medicine and technology, people are healthier and working longer;
- Decreased energy and stamina due to age can lead to decreased work performance;
- Injury rates are similar to that of the younger population but the recovery period is longer;
- 75% of workers 55+ have at least one chronic health condition;
- Older workers have strong work ethic and are skilled and experienced.
Now, where aging, employment and farmwork intersect, there is even more to think about.
Given the labor-intensive nature of the industry, contact with heavy machinery, the presence of livestock, and other hazardous conditions, farmworkers encounter numerous risks that may compromise their safety and health. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), the average farmworker age is 38; farmworkers aged 55 and older make up 14% of the farmworker population.
According to the National Agricultural Safety Database, farmworkers become more susceptible to occupational hazards involving age-related change, such as sensory and physical impairments. Changes to our various senses, like vision, hearing, balance, and smell, can delay reactions, stunt productivity, and pose potential threats.
For example, as we age, we might notice that the words on a flyer that were once so sharp and easy to see now require special lighting, squinting, and perhaps corrective lenses. In fact, the amount of light needed for a sixty year-old to see objects clearly is eight times as much as that of a 20 year-old. Or, say you are straining to hear someone speak during a safety presentation: a lot of valuable information may be lost or misinterpreted due to hearing loss.
Impaired senses aren’t the only thing that may increase the risk of injury among farmworkers. Years of repeating the same work that was already hard on one’s joints to begin with, and which puts enormous strain on particular muscles – such as bending over, carrying heavy sacks, cutting plants with dull or rusty tools, etc. – leads to high rates of musculoskeletal pain and injury with age.
As usual, prevention rules. Studies on exposure to excessive noise suggest that, “farm workers of all ages have higher levels of noise-induced hearing loss than the general population.” Age-related hearing loss can be compounded by hazardous noise levels at work. Take advantage of any resources available to prevent injury or illness, such as headphones, ear plugs, goggles, gloves, respiratory masks, etc. Regarding musculoskeletal challenges, it can help to be mindful of one’s posture while picking to prevent things like back pain, arthritis, slipped discs, and scoliosis. Stretching exercises at the beginning, end, and throughout the day can help to keep muscles and joints properly aligned.
Employers obviously have a significant role to play here, too. Some helpful accommodations for older farmworkers include: improved lighting in enclosed spaces, steps, and walkways; installing easy-to-use fences, doors, and stables; limiting heavy equipment operation to daylight hours; and speaking clearly to ensure clarity. Making the workplace accessible for workers with physical limitations can be achieved by relocating workstations and by installing lifts or ramps. In the field, agricultural employers can make low-cost adjustments, simply by considering ergonomic limitations in their instructions to workers. (More ideas can be found here.)
Fortunately, ongoing trainings like AFOP Health & Safety Program’s Heat Stress and Pesticide Safety trainings, can help extend the healthy, productive years of a farmworker’s life. Our advocacy for safe and healthy working conditions hopefully make a difference, too. AFOP always supports better benefits, access to healthcare, clear instruction, reasonable accommodations, and better opportunity for farmworkers.
Aging should not be an obstacle to work. Rather, workers’ contribution to society should be valued just as much during peak years of productivity as when workers are in the twilight of their lives, their commitment to farmwork surviving the ravages of time.
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