Farming deaths – an ongoing problem
Farming deaths - an ongoing problem
Roger W. Byard 0
0 Discipline of Anatomy and Pathology, Level 3 Medical School North Building, The University of Adelaide , Frome Road, Adelaide, SA 5005 , Australia
The case reported by Peyron and Baccino of a farmer who
was decapitated when his clothing became caught in the drive
shaft of a tractor  draws stark attention to the dangers still
inherent in farming and agricultural work. In many countries
farming is one of the most dangerous of occupations, with
Australian data showing that of the 195 workers killed in that
country in 2015, 53 were involved in agriculture, forestry or
fishing (27%), 44 in transport (22%), 29 in construction (15%)
and only 11 in mining (6%) . Reasons for the high
morbidity and mortality rates on farms relate to economic and
cropping pressures and include working during all weather
conditions, working for extended hours during peak seasons,
not using personal protection equipment, and using old and
possibly poorly-maintained equipment . Thus, victims of
agricultural accidents are regularly presented for medicolegal
assessments in morgues around the world [3–7]. Alcohol has
been detected in between 9 to 37.2% of victims [3, 5].
In an eight-year national study from 2003 to 2011 in
Australia, the 365 workers who died on farms represented
17% of all worker fatalities . The types of fatal incidents
involved vehicles (39%), impact with a moving object (17%),
entrapment by equipment/machinery (11%), impact by falling
objects (8%), falls (7%), animals (6%), electrocution (6%) and
miscellaneous causes . The vehicle deaths were
predominantly due to tractors, with other deaths involving aircraft,
light vehicles and quad bikes . Injuries from non-fatal
accidents are more likely to result from lifting, handling or
carrying, falling from heights and animal actions .
Fatal injuries that occur tend to be severe with limb
amputations, evisceration, crushing and decapitation . A study of
occupational traumatic brain injury in the United States
showed that over half were reported from the construction,
transportation and agriculture/forestry/fishing industries.
Death rates were 15 times higher in males, with the highest
rates of traumatic brain injury deaths occurring in males aged
65 years and older . In Australia farm fatalities tend to occur
mainly in white males, who account for 67% of workers but
92% of deaths and 85% of hospital admissions . A similar
finding was reported from an 11-year retrospective study
of tractor-related deaths from Virginia, United States
where 98% of the victims were male and 91% were
white. The average age was 60 years with rollovers
accounting for 54% of cases, the majority (60%) of these
occurring on hills or inclines . This is predisposed to
by the narrow wheel base of tractors in combination with
their relatively high center of gravity .
Using a tractor for logging activities was found to be
particularly high risk . The risk of non-fatal injuries was also
found to be highest in forestry workers in a study from
England and Wales, and also in those who had recently started
agricultural work . An increased risk of accidents has also
been associated with the use of illegal seasonal workers who
have had no safety training . Other issues with temporary
workers include their lack of experience, poor general training
and often worse working conditions .
Other severe injuries, as occurred in the case reported by
Peyron and Baccino , may result from entanglement of
clothing in power take-off drive lines. These are metal shafts
that rotate rapidly at the back of tractors powering other
equipment. They often do not have safety shields and may cause
rapid death from avulsion of limbs, or from crushing the body
and head . In a study from Konya in Turkey power take-off
entanglements were responsible for 5.8% of the deaths .
Farming also has a higher rate of animal-related deaths than
most other occupations and this may involve both
domesticated and wild species. Large animals such as cows, buffalo and
horses may cause severe injuries, and death may result from
being kicked, crushed, gored or stomped on [11, 12]. The
most significant injuries involve the head and face, and then
the upper torso. Pigs may cause significant injuries with their
tusks, or from biting, and sheep have been known to cause
lethal blunt force injuries from charging handlers [11, 13]. An
unusual death caused by a sheep was severing of the major
neck vessels by electric clippers that had been knocked out of
the shearers hand . Farm workers are also exposed to
dangers from snake and bee envenomation which may induce
fatal anaphylaxis .
Asphyxiation accounted for 7% of deaths in a British study
 and may result from entrapment by machinery or tractors
or from an unstable but heavy object such as a hay bale. Hay
baling is a particularly agricultural activity that may result in
death from a variety of mechanisms [17, 18]. Other causes of
asphyxiation include exposure to methane in storage sheds or
wheat silos, or to carbon monoxide from using faulty
equipment in confined spaces . A similar risk of the latter has
been reported in the fishing industry . Entrapment in
wheat within a silo may also result in death from a
combination of suffocation and chest compression. Other deaths have
been caused by exposure to extremes of temperature, to
insecticides and to the effects of brushfires (bushfires) . Given
the average age of the decedents, the possibility of significant
underlying organic disease should be considered. For
example, cardio- and cerebrovascular disease was responsible for
20% of deaths in one series of farm-related fatalities . With
increasing economic hardships in rural communities and the
ready availability of firearms, suicide is also another
significant category of rural death in a number of countries [21, 22].
Safe Work Australia classified deaths of non-workers on
farms as “bystander deaths”. In their eight year study there
were 41 of these types of deaths compared to the 365 that
involved workers. Of note, 35 of these victims (85%) were
children under the age of 10 years. Drowning accounted for
the highest number of deaths with 13 cases, 10 of whom were
children . Children are particularly vulnerable to injury and
death on farms due to the hazards resulting from the unique
blend of home and industrial environments. For example,
while only 2% of children in the United States live on farms,
the number of fatalities from farm machines almost equals
deaths from falls or poisoning in the home [4, 23]. Problems
arise from tractor run-overs, drowning in waterways or dams,
suffocation in wheat silos, and unsupervised access to
machinery [24–26]. There is an age-related vulnerability, with injuries
from vehicle run-overs, animal kicks and falls tending to
involve younger children. Visitors to farms may be at even
higher risk. Older children are more likely to get hurt when
using equipment without proper supervision or from falling
off horses or motor cycles [27–29]. Involvement of all family
members in the full range of farm activities also increases the
chances of injury and death in the young [3, 30].
As Dwight Eisenhower pointed out so pithily, although
farming may seem an easy occupation when it is observed
from a safe distance, it remains a potentially dangerous
activity in many countries for a wide variety of economic, cultural
and geographic reasons. Injuries can be severe and
mechanisms of death can be quite diverse. The medicolegal issues
may be complex if issues of insurance or adherence to work
standards are being investigated.
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