Being safe, healthy on the farm
SPENCER – Combines and grain carts are back in the sheds, temperatures are dropping and the snow has arrived.
While they indicate a change of seasons, farmers and their families should also use the winter down-time to take inventory of their health and health insurance coverages.
Maureen Horsley, advanced registered nurse practitioner at Crown Clinic in Spencer, said farmers will typically do all they can to keep their equipment in good working order, but often times don’t apply that same way of thinking to their health and wellness.
“An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure,” she said. “If farmers would come in once a year or once every other year to get a checkup, we could detect problems early … and we can act on them sooner.”
She said basic exams for both men and women are a good place to start, including a family health history evaluation.
She said regular screenings should apply to women and men on the farm, including blood testing for cholesterol and checks for anemia; prostate health, diabetes, colon screenings, immunizations and tetanus.
Tetanus can result in lockjaw, which can be fatal.
Getting immunized against tetanus, as well as for shingles, pneumonia and the flu are all important in maintaining good overall health, Horsley said.
A common illness she sees in farmers is skin cancer of the ears, nose and lips.
“Those harmful rays can still come through a tractor cab window, so it’s important to cover your skin and wear sunblock to prevent skin cancers such as basal cell or malignant melanoma,” said Horsley.
Horsley said farmers deal with chemicals every year, and the most important thing they can do to protect their bodies from chemical-causing diseases is to read and follow the label directions on the container.
“If it says to wear a mask while working with it, then wear a mask,” she said. “If it says to wear gloves and coveralls when handling it, then do so, because that means it can absorb through the skin and show up later.
“And if you’re moving grain from a bin to another place, it’s a good idea to wear a certified respirator mask. Also, if you’re working with hogs.”
Farmers should wear hearing protection and have their hearing checked periodically, she said. They can contact any audiologist in the community for a free hearing evaluation.
One important thing farmers can do to improve their health is to stop smoking.
“If people smoke very much at all, they will live 10 years less than they normally would,” Horsley said. “The lungs act as a filtering system, keeping carcinogens out of the blood stream, and when they are coated with tar, they can’t do their job.”
Alcohol also plays a role in rural health, with the stresses of farm life putting farmers and their families at a higher risk of alcohol-related illnesses.
She recommended no more than one drink per hour, to a maximum of four drinks in a 24-hour period.
“There are so many uncontrollable variables on the farm,” Horsley said. “The grain markets were three times as high two years ago than they are now, and there are weather fluctuations. Farmers should talk about stresses they are feeling.
“If they’re not sleeping they’re not as alert on the tractor, and that’s when accidents happen.”
A sleep study should also be considered, since Horsley said farmers driving trucks can pose a fatigue threat on the road.
“If someone’s neck measures more than 19 inches in circumference, we can’t pass them on their DOT physical unless they do a sleep study first,” she said, adding that neck size plays a role in sleep apnea.
She said so much of basic rural health comes down to eating correctly-with three-fourth of a plate being filled with fruits and vegetables, no more than two or three carbs per day, at least six to eight glasses of water each day and plenty of protein for muscle and bone strength.
“You only get one body,” Horsley said. “(Just like farm equipment), if you beat (your body) up and don’t take care of it, it won’t last as long as if you had maintained it.”
Mike Thoreson, a Farm Bureau Insurance agent in Dickinson County, said there are a few things farm families can do to keep their health insurance premiums under control, in light of changes brought on by the Affordable Care Act.
That includes accepting a larger deductible or starting a health savings account.
He said the health savings account offers tax advantages and is a good option for families who pay for health insurance monthly, but don’t use it often.
Families take on a higher deductible and, in turn, could qualify to open an account.
Beginning in 2015, qualifying families could deposit up to $6,650, with all money going in and coming out (as medical expenses occur) being tax-free.
“It’s like a cafeteria plan,”Thoreson said, “but the beauty of it is that if you don’t use it, you don’t lose it.
“It carries over until the next year and accumulates with interest, so it’s very attractive.
“And it can be post-funded, just like an IRA.
“As farmers are looking for tax deductions with farm equipment this time of year, they can also dump money into that if they want to.”
Farmers with hired workers, he said, are not required to offer or pay for health insurance as a benefit unless they have 50 or more workers.
However, if the workers are in a W-2 situation as opposed to a 1099 situation, they are required to offer and pay for workman’s compensation insurance.
Thoreson said at one time employers were allowed to pay an employee’s health premiums for whatever plan that employee was carrying on their own.
That is no longer allowed, he said.
“Now what employers can do is offer a group health care plan, include that employee, and pay for it that way,” he said, adding that it’s becoming more of a topic for employers to be able to offer something in terms of health care coverage for employees – including on the farm.
One thing farm employers can do, Thoresen said, is to offer well-life benefits – including memberships to fitness centers, which, he said, lead to a healthier lifestyle, but don’t associate themselves with health insurance directly.
Above all, Thoreson said farm families should check with their insurance carrier to make sure it includes preventative care, and that families should know what’s available to them.
They should also check on benefits, such as discounts on prescription drugs and products related to health, weight loss and fitness.
“If families aren’t talking to their agent, they need to take time to educate themselves by speaking to the insurance company themselves or finding out online what benefits are available,” Thoreson said. “Everybody needs to be pro-active in this and make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.
“The only way to find out is to ask the questions.”
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