Farm families live, work and play in a hazardous environment, subject to injury from machinery, unpredictable animals and vehicles. Stress factors also play a significant role in family members' health. Farmers are slow to seek medical attention when they are injured or in pain.

These are some of the findings generated from a survey by the Texas Panhandle Farm and Ranch Family Health and Injury Project, coordinated by Lana Skarke.

Skarke, rural research coordinator for West Texas A&M University, Division of Nursing, in Canyon, says the project's ultimate goal will be to improve awareness of health issues in rural Texas.

“As we find concerns, we implement programs to help families address health needs,” Skarke said.

The effort began with a telephone survey of 650 women in five Texas Panhandle counties, Hartley, Deaf Smith, Swisher, Grady and Carson.

“We asked more than 300 questions,” Skarke said, “partly to determine women's' role in farm health awareness. We also tried to identify preventable and non-preventable injuries, farm family access to health care and the types of injuries and illnesses common among farm families. We also asked about injuries in the past 12 months to children under age 18 who were still living on the farm.”

The project was funded by the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention and Education, located in Tyler and one of nine such facilities across the United States.

“We've been working on this project since 1995,” Skarke said. “After the initial survey, which ran from 1996 until the fall of 1997, we established focus groups to get a better idea of health needs and why farm families seek or fail to seek health care.”

From that study emerged the Texas Partnership for Farm Family Health and Safety, a women's group in Deaf Smith County.

Another end product of the initial survey is a health-screening program at farm shows.

“We use nursing students to screen for high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, hearing and other health factors,” Skarke said. “If we find warning signs, we recommend a follow-up with a family physician. We also work in partnership with the Tetanus Awareness Program.

“Farmers are at high risk for tetanus. They work with the soil and around machinery, where they are apt to get scrapes and cuts. A lot of people do not realize that they need a tetanus booster every 10 years,” Skarke said. “As we do our health screening at farm shows, we ask about tetanus shots.”

She said the project also produced farm safety day camps for children. “We focus on fourth graders,” she said, “because that's the age when youngsters begin to take on more responsibility around the farm. Many start driving tractors at an early age.”

The women's group also identified stress management as a significant concern, Skarke said. “That's a dominant theme across the nation.”

Skarke and a group of faculty members and nursing students in December manned a health booth at the Amarillo Farm Show and conducted tetanus screening, cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose and hearing tests.

Skarke said a relatively small number of farm show visitors stopped to check blood pressure. “We picked up a few high readings,” she said, “but a lot of farmers simply don't want to know.”

She said the initial survey indicated that farm women in the Texas Panhandle believe their health is good to excellent. The national trend is fair. “I think most would say their husbands are fair to good,” Skarke said.

According to the surveys, farm women believe machinery accidents are preventable; accidents with animals are not. “They believe animal behavior is too erratic to predict,” she said.

The survey indicated that pain would have to be severe enough to prevent farmers from working before they would seek medical attention.

Injuries to children included animals, machinery and vehicles. “But 67 percent of children's injuries were sports related. Based on that finding, we developed a sports injury prevention program.”

Skarke said the survey showed some on-farm injuries, “but not many. Respondents reported no hunting accidents.

“We found that farm women understand that their families work in a dangerous occupation. They accept that.”

Sakrke's five-year grant ended with completion of the survey and institution of a number of programs.

“We received a new grant in October, 2001 and will use those funds to develop a coalition in another county,” she said. “Our goal is to use the research to improve health and safety for rural families.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com