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Farmers must fight fatigue to improve farm safety – Guest blog

As a farmer, you probably know better than anyone else that agriculture is the most dangerous industry in the UK writes Ilinca Tone, a PhD student at Aberdeen University studying the impacts of fatigue on farm safety.

You may know someone who unfortunately lost their life in a farm accident, or you may have had a workplace injury yourself. What’s more, you have probably felt extremely tired at work at least once in the past year, especially when going through calving or lambing, working long hours or during the night, dealing with high workload, not sleeping properly or at all.

But is there a connection between the risk of accident in agriculture and workplace fatigue? The short answer supported by our research is ‘yes’!

Fatigue is when you wake up tired day after day. It’s when you feel like you do not have the same power to get up and do jobs, or a consistent feeling of not having slept at all. In other words, it is an extreme form of tiredness.

Apart from the health problems which can appear because of it, fatigue can also put you and others at risk of accident and injury. Studies with farmers from North America show that working long hours and sleeping poorly or too little are bad for farm safety. Supporting this point, the many farmers from the UK who have taken part in our research projects frequently reported that the incidents which they were involved in boiled down to fatigue or rushing.

Because we wanted to find out more from industry experts about the impact of fatigue on thoughts and actions, we interviewed Irish and British farmers on their experience of fatigue. Many of them said that they were taking more risks or shortcuts and rushing to get the job done when extremely tired. They also mentioned that their alertness or concentration dropped and that they were aware of what was going on around them, and less able to spot when things were going wrong.

This is something which also happens to pilots, offshore drillers, and other people who, just like you, work at the sharp end in a high-risk industry - their situation awareness or their mental picture of what is going on around them is negatively affected by fatigue.

The reality is that fatigue can be prevented most of the time in farming through good sleep, proper food, and relaxation, but not always. It is sometimes a fact of life in agriculture, as you cannot stop calving or harvest from happening every year. So, what can you do to tackle fatigue when it creeps in? Some of the farmers in our study suggested several useful strategies.

First and foremost, the moment you feel the first signs of fatigue, take a break. Don’t wait until you are falling asleep during the job. Put your tools down and take a breather, even if it is just for a short while. You will come back to the task refreshed and more productive.

Or even better, take a quick nap in a safe space. This is especially crucial if you are feeling fatigued while driving, as your ability to react will be impaired.

It is also important and perfectly normal to occasionally take time off, preferably to get away from the farm, even if just for an hour or two. This can help you detach, socialise with friends, family, and the local community, and come back to the remaining jobs with a new outlook. Farming is unique, because your workplace is most likely your home as well, so going away from it all from time to time can really make a difference.

Some important lessons can also be learned from those working in defence aviation. Just like you, they have to deal with danger on a daily basis and they may sometimes find themselves fatigued at work. Studies show that one of their preferred strategies to tackle fatigue is slowing down the job.

This may sound counter intuitive as you may feel like you need to rush to get the job done when you are tired. However, because you are not as alert, going slow actually allows you to catch errors and not have to go back and fix things.

Another strategy used by these professionals is postponing non-essential tasks or passing these on to somebody else if working in a team.

Finally, when working while fatigued, it is important to keep in touch with others, not only so you can get help in case of an emergency, but also to keep yourself alert.

Remember that nobody is a superhuman (or a superfarmer!) and we can all be affected by fatigue at some point in our lives.

  • Ilinca-Ruxandra Tone is a PhD student in Psychology at the University of Aberdeen and part of the Non-technical Skills Agriculture (NTSAg) group.  Non-technical skills in agriculture are a set of thinking and interaction skills which complement technical knowledge and contribute to safe and effective task performance.

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