Farmers Suffer Shocking Rates of Amputation From Workplace Injuries

Farming is grueling work, and the physical demands of the job are putting farmers in harm's way.

The physical demands of farming are putting farmers at serious physical—and financial—risk. (Adam Crowley/Getty Images)

Jul 22, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Climbing ladders and silos, operating heavy machinery, and lifting heavy bags of feed in extreme weather conditions are routine tasks for farmers. They're also costing farmers their limbs, at a rate that's 2.5 times higher than people in other industries, reports Eureka Alert!.

A new study from Northwestern University's Prosthetics-Orthotics Center explains the grisly details of what it costs to bring food to our plates. According to the study, when a farmer or rancher is injured while working, there's an 11 percent chance that an amputation will occur. Fingers and toes account for most amputations, but hands, arms, legs, and feet are also at risk.

The loss of a limb is gruesome enough, but an injured farmer's loss doesn't always stop there. Artificial limbs created for agricultural workers with significant limb amputation aren't meeting farmers' needs, the study says. Not only are prosthetic limbs expensive—sometimes prohibitively so—but they also lack the durability that the physical labor of farming demands.

Stefania Fatone, research associate professor in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Feinberg and corresponding author of the study, says designing prostheses for farmers is rife with problems. Not only are the physical demands of being a farmer more intense than many other occupations, but different farmers also have different needs; what works for a dairy farmer might not serve the purposes of a corn farmer or cattle rancher.

The paucity of strong, affordable prosthetic limbs makes returning to farming or ranching after an accident a real challenge. Farmers involved in the study reported having fallen or gotten a second injury due to the use of their prosthesis.

Extreme weather also impedes the recovery process for farmers by wearing down prostheses not suited for extreme conditions. "Farmers report that prostheses sometimes get stuck in mud, caught in weeds and exposed to chemicals, rain, snow and extreme cold and heat," Eureka Alert! reports. "All farmers interviewed in this study avoided using myoelectric prostheses while on the job because of the risk of exposure to harsh environments."

Prosthetics companies aren't entirely to blame. Prosthetists involved in the study said some farmers had "unrealistic expectations" of their artificial limb, leading the researchers to note that a lack of education about prosthetic limbs is also contributing to the problem. Farmers also reported getting injured because they rushed on the job or didn't adhere to proper safety measures.

Even if the durability problems are ironed out, farmers still face a financial dilemma. The Huffington Post reports that prosthetic limbs can run from $15,000 to $20,000—and that's after an expensive hospital stay for amputation.

The first published detailed information on the problems farmers and ranchers face with prosthetics, this study opens the door to further examination and possible solutions—not just for farmers but for many other industries. 

Military members, construction and forestry workers, commercial fishermen, miners and manufacturers could also stand to benefit.

Weigh in: Why do you think farmers' need for durable prosthetics hasn't received much attention? Let us know in the comments section below.

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