Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Safe Farming Habits Are Important During Stressful Times

October 18, 1999

Harvest is in full swing. Hard working farmers are hurrying to beat the weather and get the crops in. Prices of this past year have approached historic lows and the outlook in the near term doesn’t offer relief. So what else is new? Add in emotional distress and you have a recipe for an accident.

According to Paul Gunderson, psychologist at the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wisconsin, hard evidence from studies in Colorado, Washington, and New York show that when farmers pass a certain threshold of stress, they have a greater risk of injury or death due to farm accidents. Gunderson identifies market prices, equipment breakdown and family conflict - marital, parent/child or intergenerational - as the main sources of stress.

Most farm accidents are preventable through adopting safe practices while a few are so-called "acts of God" accidents where nothing could have predicted or prevented the event. When farmers adopt and practice certain safety measures, chances are greater they will use these precautions even though their stress levels have substantially increased

Gunderson provides this laundry list of stress and farming problems and their corresponding safe farming practices.

Task complexity and worry. Accidents happen when farmers attempt a complicated task with sequential steps while preoccupied with other matters. Solution: Postpone worry until later. Use mental discipline to focus on the here and now. Gunderson believes farmers need to pick their coffee shops with care. Some of the negative talk spills over into worry and emotion while doing complicated tasks.

Sheer fatigue. Farms have grown in size to the point where farm operators push past their physical limits. Solution: Change operators or pull over and take a short nap. Eat nutritious meals. Take away the coffee cup and the poor diet that goes with long hours. For late evening work, a second meal late at night adds energy.

Anger and hostility. Being angry and frustrated takes energy. Trying to suppress anger and hostility takes energy. Solution: Farmers need an outlet to discuss and process their anger. Decide to deal with certain matters later. This decision removes the need to be agitated and angry at the moment, knowing that the issue will be dealt with in a timely fashion.

Untimely conflict. Interpersonal conflict adds to the stress level. Solution: Spouses can delay bringing up certain matters and issues until after the big push is over. They can postpone or overlook problems so matters are not made worse. For serious, chronic conflict, farmers can access professional resources in their region once time is available.

Haste. Today’s high powered tractors and combines travel at double the speeds of ten or 15 years ago.  Farmers can be lulled by their own thoughts while traveling at these higher rates of speed. Solution: Operator attentiveness has to match the increased ground speed at which they are traveling. Farmers can turn the radio on to block out thinking time. Farmers need an extra sense of awareness of the space around them and the technology they are using.

Gunderson also details a variety of unsafe practices that cause farm accidents. Some of these are more prevalent during fall or harvest conditions.

  • Lack of respect for safety zones around dangerous equipment.
  • Working without shields in place.
  • Taking extra riders on equipment designed for one rider.
  • Working with low or bad lighting during inclement weather.
  • Using older tractors without rollover bars on hilly terrain. Roadway, sloughs and drainage ditches can be as dangerous as a hillside. Gunderson believes older tractors without adequate protection should be parked or used as stationary equipment only.
  • Using inadequate footwear during slippery or frosty conditions. A high percentage of accidents occur on ladders or steps made slippery by weather. Gunderson defines adequate footwear as footwear with a tread and steel tips.
  • Lack of preventative maintenance of equipment. Equipment needs to be serviced after the season of use and be ready to go before work is started the next season. Cost cutting here can be disastrous.
  • Approaching livestock from the rear instead of from the side or front. When livestock can’t see an intruder, they may be put into a state of flight.
  • Putting children in work situations beyond their developmental level and judgment. Much of today’s technology has eclipsed the ability for children to use technologically sophisticated farm equipment safely.

A poor farm economy with stress is no excuse to take chances with basic farm safety. Farmers need to be alive and healthy to enjoy better times. A preventable accident will heap insult upon injury. Having routine safe farming habits adds extra protection when the stress of farming exceeds normal thresholds. Above all, be safe. Others love you and need you no matter how the farming is going.