Farm safety about more than machinery

Alberta’s Farm Safety Centre expands to provide health and stress workshops for farmers

RAYMOND, Alta. — Laura Nelson keeps a newspaper clipping posted in her office that always brings her near to tears.

It is the tale of a farm tragedy involving a farmer, his child, a tractor and an industrial mower. The child did not survive.

As executive director of the Farm Safety Centre, it is Nelson’s job to find ways of meeting the centre’s mandate — to reduce injuries and deaths on Alberta farms.

Tales of tragedy provide high motivation. But so do stories about children encouraging parents to employ safer farm work practices, after the kids learned about it through the centre’s elementary school program.

The centre has been providing farm safety programs in Alberta schools for 17 years, reaching 50,000 to 60,000 children per year.

Now the centre is testing a program developed in Australia that is designed to reach the farmers themselves.

“It’s a bit of a different twist for adults. This program is about health, well-being and safety. It doesn’t just thin-slice it to safety,” said Nelson.

Contrary to popular belief, rural people are not as healthy as their urban counterparts. Canadian statistics indicate the life expectancy for men in rural areas is three years less than men who live in cities.

Similarly, rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, suicide, motor vehicle accidents and drowning are all higher per capita in rural health zones.

Nelson admits an approach that emphasizes health along with farm safety is a new direction, but she said it makes a lot of sense.

“It matters not one bit to your farm operation whether you lose an arm to an auger or to diabetes. It has exactly the same impact.”

Four two-day workshops were held in Alberta in late 2014. The 42 registrants began with an individual health assessment done by a registered nurse. That was followed by information on the state of rural health, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, diet and nutrition.

The second day included a supermarket visit where participants learned how to read food labels.

“I don’t think especially some of the men had ever read a label,” said Nelson. Many were amazed at the “trifecta of fat, salt and sugar” contained in many foods.

Sessions on farm safety, stress and a meditation session followed, rounded out by individual meetings with nurses on personal health.

Nelson said there is a triple bottom line involved in farming. The first is financial and the second is natural resources like land and water. Farmers pay attention to those two but the third bottom line, human resources, gets comparatively little notice.

However, comments by participants indicated the course hit home.

“One woman said she and her husband talked a lot about it,” said Nelson.

“She said, ‘what if we knew we only had a single feed truck. We’d have that truck in the shop every night doing maintenance. My husband is our farm’s only feed truck and we never do maintenance on him. Maybe we should.’ That’s exactly the point that this whole thing is about.”

This year’s sessions were funded by Growing Forward 2 funds made available by the provincial and federal governments. Assessments are now being evaluated and Nelson said they will factor into whether funding is available for years two and three of the three-year pilot.

  • Long hours of work.
  • Seasonal pressures, stress and a tendency to live at work.
  • No paid sick leave.
  • Limited access to medical services.
  • Diet and nutrition factors.
  • Rural men have a life expectancy three years less than urban men.
  • Rural residents have higher per capita rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, suicide, motor vehicle accidents and drowning.

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