Freak accident. Fluke. Mishap.
These are words Don Voaklander wishes were never used when describing farm accidents. Unfortunately, they frequently appear in newspaper reports about farm incidents, and they may be reinforcing some dangerous attitudes.
“Of all the working communities out there, farmers may be the most fatalistic,” says Voaklander, professor in the School of Public Health. “They have this false notion that injuries are just part of the job.”
Farming is, indeed, a dangerous business. According to the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting, 101 Canadians die in agriculture-related incidents every year, and farmers are five times more likely to be killed on the job than workers in any other industry.
“It’s unfortunate because, in actuality, we know these tragedies are almost always preventable,” says Voaklander. “Media reporting is one way to promote prevention, but my research shows that’s not always happening, given the way farm injury stories are told.”
For research published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Voaklander examined 392 Canadian newspaper articles taken from the archives of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, and which reported on farm injuries and fatalities. He determined that only 93 of the articles (or 24 per cent) contained a prevention message; just 39 (a mere 10 per cent) were considered to communicate a strong message about prevention.
Voaklander defined a strong message as one including information such as states of mind that are harmful for farmers during harvest time; agencies where farmers could learn more about safety; the necessary items to include in a farm first aid kit; or calls for training standards and expert committees.
To be even more effective, the information or strategies presented came from a recognized professional: a researcher, a medical professional or a safety expert.
Examination of the articles also uncovered a trend. Those which appeared in newspapers closer to major urban centres were twice as likely to include preventive messaging as those with a mainly rural readership. Voaklander says this is due, in part, to the fact that most every other industry, more widely represented in an urban setting, is protected by legislation.
From his public health perspective, Voaklander sees this is a missed opportunity by newspapers with a more rural readership to educate farm workers about preventive measures and the workplace safety they deserve.
“In Alberta, we have comprehensive child labour laws and health and safety regulations covering other workers and industries, but many of the people who are at risk in farming have been excluded,” says Voaklander.
“We need to start talking about prevention and the policies that will achieve safety for all farm workers,” Voaklander explains. “Once there is a realization that all farm workers deserve to be fairly and equitably protected in their workplace, we will begin to see accidents as the preventable tragedies they are.”
Voaklander will give a free public lecture entitled “Old MacDonald had a farm injury” on Thursday, March 9 from 5 to 6 p.m. in room 2-490 ECHA. The lecture is part of the This is Public Health series.