John E. Furman
Key words: injuries, laws, rules, regulations, prevention
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that half of the world labor force is employed in agriculture and 1.3 billion workers are engaged in production agriculture worldwide, ranking it among the largest industries in the world. The agricultural labor force in the total economically active population is under 10% in developed countries and accounts for 59% of workers in less developed regions (1). Agriculture workers have a higher risk of sustaining work-related injuries and illness than most other occupations. Agriculture is ranked as one of the three most hazardous industries along with mining and construction. According to ILO estimates for 1997, out of a total of 330,000 fatal workplace accidents worldwide, there were some 170,000 casualties among agricultural workers (2).
Agriculture workers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and sun exposure (see Chapter 3). Many of these hazards are self-evident, such as traumatic injuries and fatalities caused by accidents with machinery like tractors and harvesters. Other hazards are less evident and indolent in nature. These may include neurological damage associated with prolonged pesticide exposure or chronic respiratory diseases related to organic dust exposure (3).
The United States collects some of the most comprehensive statistics on occupational injuries and illnesses in agriculture. Each year, about 100 U.S. agriculture workers are crushed to death by tractor rollovers. Every day, about 500 workers suffer disabling injuries, and about 5% of these result in permanent impairment. Production agriculture is one of the few industries in which families are also at risk for injuries, illnesses, and death (4). Agriculture industry injury and illness data are collected by a variety of agencies including the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the National Safety Council (NSC), and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The BLS issues annual workplace safety reports using data culled from a sample of employers reporting occupational injury and illnesses under the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) record-keeping regulation (29 CFR 1904). The BLS 1999 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries data showed that the major industry division with the highest occupational injury fatality rate was agriculture (including forestry and fishing). A major drawback with BLS data is that OSHA exempts farms with fewer than 11 paid employees and all unpaid family members working on farms from its record-keeping requirements.
In 1996 the United States recorded 710 deaths and 150,000 cases of permanent disability due to occupational accidents in the agricultural sector. The mortality rate declined from 24 per 100,000 workers in 1992 to 21 in 1996, with a peak of 27 in 1993. These figures excluded properties with fewer than 11 employees and workers under 16 years old. Other commonly reported injuries included accidents with large animals, insect stings, cuts, burns, and falls. The NSC reported the fatality rates for agricultural workers in 2000 as being 22.5 per 100,000 workers compared to 3.8 for all other industries (5).
Agriculture continues to be one of the most hazardous and least regulated major industries worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) and ILO are the leading international bodies working toward the establishment of universal standards for agricultural health and safety legislation. In addition to political recognition of the benefits of strong occupational safety and health legislation, countries with strong labor representation (e.g., United States, Australia, France, and Brazil) tend to have more effective occupational safety and health regulation (1). Unfortunately, the agriculture sector is still exempt from many general occupational safety and health regulations. The health of the agriculture sector is still thought of as a public health issue to a great degree and not always fully covered under occupational health and safety regulation. Occupational medicine, industrial hygiene, and safety organizations may have a strong impact on improving agricultural workers safety protections through the provision of focused educational curricula and renewed attention to the agriculture sector.
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