Rural Agricultural Health and Safety

With the introduction of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, American farmers couldn’t possibly foresee the dramatic upheaval agriculture would experience in the next several decades, nor the fundamental lifestyle changes, both positive and negative, it would usher in. High yielding varieties, dependent on synthetic fertilizers and oftentimes toxic pesticides, would become the norm, ending a way of life for some farm families, and simultaneously increasing the prosperity of others.

While this new found wealth changed agriculture in a mostly positive manner, it has placed the modern North American farmer in harms way his ancestors could never have imagined. Toxic gases, farm accidents, skin cancer, chemical exposure, drought, floods, insect infestation, long working hours, lack of finances including health insurance, disabling injuries, and isolation all play a part in the life of the modern farmer.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agriculture remains one of the most hazardous industries in this country, with approximately 1,854,000 full-time workers being employed in production agriculture in the U.S. in 2012. In this same year, 374 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury for a fatality rate of 20.2 deaths per 100,000 workers.

Farm work does not stop when the farmer is injured and often resumes despite injuries or before injuries are fully healed. However, various health and safety programs or services exist to provide the assistance and prevention the American farmer deserves.

Source: Workplace Safety & Health Topics: Agricultural Safety, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Frequently Asked Questions

How many children are involved in agricultural injuries?

According to the 2014 Fact Sheet: Childhood Agricultural Injuries in the U.S., 38 children are injured every day in an agriculture-related incident. Agriculture has a high fatality rate among youth workers compared to all industries, with machinery accidents, motor vehicles, and drowning being the main cause of death. Many youth are injured in nonfatal injuries while performing farm work, working with livestock, and operating farm equipment.

The Department of Agriculture reports there are 2.2 million farms in the U.S., with an estimated 1 million children living on these farms. According to the 2014 Fact Sheet: Childhood Agricultural Injuries in the U.S. in 2012, an estimated 13,996 nonfatal injuries occurred to youth under the age of 20.

What health risks are farmers exposed to?

Health risks farmers are exposed to include:

  • Toxic gases from manure decomposition produce methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and hydrogen disulfide.
  • Silo crop storage produces gases such as nitrogen dioxide, an extremely toxic, yellowish-brown gas with a bleach-like odor. When nitrogen dioxide is inhaled and comes in contact with the moisture in your lungs, it actually forms nitric acid. This acid causes chemical burns of the airway and lungs, and sometimes complete asphyxiation. Silo gas acts very fast. Many people inhale it and never regain consciousness. Those who do survive often have permanent disability because of scarring of the lung tissue.
  • Dusts in livestock, resulting in asphyxiation, lung damage and respiratory problems.
  • Ultraviolet rays from the sun, resulting in skin cancer.
  • Joint and ligament injuries, resulting in arthritic conditions which affect mobility.
  • Exposure to loud noises and sounds from machinery and equipment, resulting in hearing loss.
  • Exposure to agricultural chemicals, pesticides, and anhydrous ammonia.
  • Stress from droughts, floods, pests, long hours, financial concerns, and feelings of isolation and frustration.
  • Having to travel long distances to receive healthcare.

How can family members and children be protected from exposure to pesticides?

According to studies done by the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, children who live near pesticide-treated farmland may have higher exposures than children living further away from spray activities. A study of preschool children living in the tree fruit regions where agricultural spraying occurs had increased levels of pesticide in their urine compared to periods of non-spraying.

Another study discovered that children of lead-exposed construction workers were six times more likely to have blood lead levels over the recommended limit as compared to children whose parents did not work in lead-related industries.

To protect family members from take-home contamination, a few things can be done such as changing into clean clothing and shoes before leaving work, removing shoes before entering the house, washing hands often, and washing work clothes separately.

Growers should provide employees with the time and facilities to change clothes and wash, as is required in high exposure lead jobs. Growers can support conscientious employees who are taking precautions and encourage lax workers to begin doing so. It is through this kind of active cooperation between workers and producers that we can both secure the benefits of pesticide use and minimize the risks associated with these chemicals.