Agriculture tops league for work stress and danger

With farming’s busy harvest period approaching on the horizon, long hours together with the pressures to get crops gathered during uncertain weather windows have been identified as the major cause of farm accidents.

Fatigue adds to danger
Fatigue adds to danger

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen have highlighted that stress and fatigue are a major threat when it comes to ignoring danger signs or taking unnecessary risks in the fields, farmyards and grain stores around the country.

Researchers in the psychology department looked at the role of non-technical skills in farming, with the project focusing on ‘situation awareness’, which they explained was broadly defined as ‘knowing what is happening around you.’ They found that lapses in situation awareness, related to stress and fatigue, were a main contributory factor in farming accidents.

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This project has been the first major study to look at the impact of stress and fatigue on situation awareness and safety in agriculture.

The researchers said that agriculture had topped the list of the most dangerous industry in the UK, measured by fatality and injury rate, for many years, with the most recent set of official statistics released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showing that after a dip in fatalities last year, farm deaths rose by 60 percent this year to a total of 34 fatalities, significantly higher than the five-year average.

The team will present their work – which was funded by the School of Psychology next week as part of the annual Farm Safety Week.

Researchers, Ilinca-Ruxandra Tone asked farmers to describe a farming accident when they were tired or stressed followed by several questions about their general experience of stress and fatigue.

The results showed that situation awareness lapses were present in all accidents and incidents reported and that many lapses occurred at the ‘perception’ level, such as a failure to notice something.

She said that farmers shared the risk of lapses in situation awareness and the mental picture of what was going on around when affected by fatigue with other workers at the sharp end of high risk industries such as pilots and offshore drillers.

Other lapses in situation awareness were described at the ‘comprehension’ level in the form of an incorrect or incomplete understanding of the situation, such as misjudging the size of a vehicle.

Some of these incidents were attributed to a recent change in equipment or machinery or over-familiarity with existing equipment.

“We wanted to explore the link between stress and fatigue, situation awareness lapses and safety in farmers – something that no one has looked at until now.”

She said there were consistent signs that farmers’ stress and fatigue could negatively affect their mental picture of what was going on - which lead to accidents and incidents.

“This is hugely significant given that stress and fatigue are prevalent issues in agriculture, alongside more serious mental health issues and our findings extend our knowledge to establish a link between stress and fatigue and situation awareness.”

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