Agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries. Farmers are at very high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries; and farming is one of the few industries in which family members (who often share the work and live on the premises) are also at risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries.
In 1990, NIOSH developed an extensive agricultural safety and health program to address the high risks of injuries and illnesses experienced by workers and families in agriculture. NIOSH supports intramural research and funds extramural research and prevention programs at university centers in 10 states. These programs conduct research on injuries associated with agriculture, as well as pesticide exposure, pulmonary disease, musculoskeletal disorders, hearing loss, and stress.
Who’s at Risk?
- Approximately 1,854,000 full-time workers were employed in production agriculture in the US in 2012.
- Approximately 1.4 to 2.1 million hired crop workers are employed annually on crop farms in the US.
- An estimated 955,000 youth under 20 years of age resided on farms in 2012, with about 472,000 youth performing farm work. In addition to the youth who live on farms, an estimated 259,000 youth were hired to work on US farms in 2012.
- In 2012, 374 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury, resulting in a fatality rate of 20.2 deaths per 100,000 workers. Tractor overturns were the leading cause of death for these farmers and farm workers.
- The most effective way to prevent tractor overturn deaths is the use of a Roll-Over Protective Structure (ROPS). In 2012, 59% of tractors used on farms in the US were equipped with ROPS. If ROPS were placed on all tractors used on US farms manufactured since the mid-1960’s, the prevalence of ROPS-equipped tractors could be increased to over 80%.
- On average, 113 youth less than 20 years of age die annually from farm-related injuries (1995 -2002), with most of these deaths occurring to youth 16-19 years of age (34%).
- Of the leading sources of fatal injuries to youth, 23% percent involved machinery (including tractors), 19% involved motor vehicles (including ATVs), and 16% were due to drowning.
- Every day, about 167 agricultural workers suffer a lost-work-time injury. Five percent of these injuries result in permanent impairment.
- From 2008-2010, 50% of all hired crop worker injuries were classified as a sprain or strain.
- In 2012, an estimated 14,000 youth were injured on farms; 2,700 of these injuries were due to farm work.
Growing Hazards: Safety Rules Often Don’t Apply To Farming, One Of The Most Dangerous Jobs
By Nicole Erwin
May 26, 2017
Jeanna Glisson has two lives: her life before August 20th, 2007, and her life after. That day is so vivid, Glisson can still hear the sounds of her son’s feet coming down the stairs.
“I remember Derek when he got up that morning, he was on the phone talking to my dad. He was excited,” Glisson said.
It was the first day of harvest at Swift Farms in Murray, Kentucky, and Derek couldn’t wait to get to the corn fields. Glisson remembers it feeling like the hottest day of the year. It was a Monday, she said.
“He looked forward to it. I remember him getting in the shower. And then after that…” Her voice trails off. She remembers that the phone rang. It was her brother. Derek had been hurt. Before Glisson or any of the emergency responders could get to the farm, it was too late.
Courtesy Jeanna Glisson
Derek Glisson as a young boy, with his father.
“He was dead on arrival,” she said.
Just hours before, Derek, his grandfather, and a couple other farm workers had been trying to reattach a piece of equipment to a combine. They had gone through the motions to make sure the part was attached, even lifting the piece three times before Derek crawled under the machine. But somehow, the equipment slipped.
“It was a tragic, tragic accident is the best way I can explain it. I don’t think there was one thing they could have done differently,” Glisson said.
On her way through the flashing emergency lights and long line of neighbors along Faxon Road, Glisson finally made it to her son. “He looked peaceful, like he was asleep,” she said.
The Calloway County Coroner said Derek died from mechanical asphyxia from crushing injuries.
Farming is among the country’s most dangerous occupations. Government statistics show the industry consistently has some of the highest risks for injury and death from work-related accidents, and the Ohio Valley region is no exception.
A ReSource review of data on agriculture-related deaths shows that from 2011 to 2015, Ohio had 101 fatalities, the fifth highest such number in the nation. Kentucky had 65 fatalities over those five years, the 14th highest in the nation. West Virginia, which has relatively few people in farming, had six fatalities.
Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource
Agribusiness leaders say voluntary training and awareness are improving safety. But veteran safety regulators say enforcement is also lacking. Unlike with other industries, safety regulators are restricted on what they can do to help when it comes to injuries and fatalities on the farm.
Jordan Barab is a former deputy assistant secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, who has been blogging on worker safety issues since leaving government at the end of the Obama administration. Barab said the agency faces frustrating limitations when it comes to farms, especially small farms, which statistics show are generally more hazardous.
“Basically, OSHA is not allowed to go on any small farm,” he said. “And that means for any reason.”
“Small” is defined as having fewer than 11 workers other than family members and no migrant labor housed on the farm.
Barab said this loophole in worker safety for small farms exists because of the political sway of agriculture lobbyists, including the Farm Bureau.
“If there is a worker complaint, if a worker gets killed, if ten workers get killed, OSHA can’t even step foot on there to cite or anything,” he said.
A lot of people get hurt and killed on farms and Barab said it’s because of the nature of the work environment. Risky activity, confined spaces such as grain silos, and dangerous, heavy machines are all areas where he thinks inspectors could be helpful.
“There are all kinds of issues on farms that OSHA could address,” he said.
Courtesy Jeanna Glisson
Some of the heavy equipment at Swift Farms. Equipment accidents such as tractor roll-overs account for many farm injuries and deaths.
During Barab’s time at OSHA, he said, the department was often stopped in its tracks if it came close to issues regarding agriculture. In Barab’s blog “Confined Space” he wrote that agribusiness lobbyists accused his agency of “destroying the great American family farm” when it attempted what he considered common sense safety improvements:
When OSHA tried to protect workers — not through regulations, but through clarifications or new enforcement initiatives for existing regulations…when we were trying to save the lives of workers — often teen-age kids — from suffocating in grain silos, when we tried to correct a misinterpretation of OSHA’s Process Safety Standard to compel small fertilizer establishments (like West fertilizer that exploded in 2013, killing 15 people and leveling part of the town) to take basic precautions with hazardous materials that other chemical establishments were required to take.
Barab said OSHA offers more than just enforcement. Consultation services in every state allow for inspections to improve practices without penalty.
“There will always be employers who want to cut corners” said Barab, and that’s who needs enforcement.
Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource
Even getting accurate numbers on farming injuries and deaths can be frustrating. A study by the Ohio Commission on the Prevention of Injury found that “there is a gap in the fatality and injury reporting systems for the agricultural occupation.” With at least ten different sources of data on work-related safety incidents, “the United States does not have a unified reporting system.”
Farm Bureau spokesperson Paul Schlegal said bureau policies are decided by delegates from all fifty states at annual meetings. He said their consensus is that safety awareness works best through grassroots training efforts with local programs.
“I don’t think OSHA was set up to regulate safety on small farms,” he said. “And you have seen for literally decades a Congressional directive that supports that point of view, so I don’t think that is going to change.”
“Safety begins with each individual employer,” Schlegal said, and responsibility to follow safe working rules and conditions falls on the employees.
Future Farmers of America provides some of this training. In the Ohio Valley the FFA has chapters with more than 45,000 students.
Kentucky FFA Executive Secretary Matt Chaliff said farm safety “seems to have renewed interest.” Just this year national FFA is moving to include safety as one of its “15 areas of interest” to drive safety awareness to all its member chapters. A new agreement with Safety in Agriculture for Youth will also provide online resources.
Chaliff said instilling safety awareness into behavioral practices is different when it comes to younger farmers who often exhibit what he calls an “invincibility” attitude. They tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate risk. Add a four-wheel All Terrain Vehicle, or ATV, into the mix, and those risks increase significantly, he said
“We see a huge issue with ATV’s,” he said, noting the many injuries resulting from their use. “ATVs have become such a prevalent part in agriculture. It’s something we need to get a handle on.”
Farmer and college student Brandon Pepper attended FFA classes before he graduated from LaRue County High School in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Last year, Pepper had a freak accident on the farm that he said resonated more than the FFA seminars ever could.
Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource
“My father and a couple of hired hands were working on a piece of tillage equipment out in the field,” Pepper said. His family repurposes old farm equipment as a small side business.
“We had a guy hitting metal with a hammer, and my father was running the torch, and I was running the bottle-jack, and putting a lot of pressure on this piece of metal that we were trying to move,” he said. “All of the sudden it moved very fast.”
Pepper said he didn’t realize what had happened until he looked down at his hand.
“My thumb,” he said, “was hanging by a little bitty piece of skin, I could have cut it off with a pair of fingernail clippers.” The thumb was spared, but the knuckle was not.
But even after nearly losing his thumb, Pepper still resists regulations. If he could turn back the clock and bring an agency like OSHA on the farm, he said, he wouldn’t.
“It makes things more difficult to do,” he said.
Pepper’s comments reflect a deep mindset in farming country, one that prizes independence and self-reliance and resents government intrusion. However, he is open to other ways of improving safety practices.
“If there was some kind of nonprofit organization that wasn’t going to come in and tell us what we could and could not do and just try and help us,” he said. “I feel like that could be beneficial.”
Putting Safety In Neutral
That is where organizations such as Ag Safe, a nonprofit farm training organization, can step in. Ag Safe started in California in 1991. This year Development Director Natalie Gupton opened an office in Kentucky.
“In our 26 years of existence we have yet to meet a farmer that wants something bad to happen to their workers,” Gupton said.
Gupton said Ag Safe offers a “neutral third party” for farmers who need better safety training and awareness and help managing the regulations they face. She expects the organization will likely expand to include Ohio and West Virginia as well. From proper pesticide use to updated farm equipment, she said, a myriad of compliance concerns that come with at least eight government organizations can overwhelm farmers.
“There’s so many organizations that a farmer has to deal with, big or small, when they’re working with our nation’s food supply,” Gupton said.
Gupton said she doesn’t think additional regulation is the right approach. She said communication often isn’t good among different government departments. That means rules can overlap and farmers can be confused on whether allowing one regulator on their fields could create a conflict with another agency limiting who can be among crops.
Courtesy Jeanna Glisson
Cornfields at harvest time.
Because Ag Safe isn’t a regulator, farmers and insurance companies seem to welcome its presence.
“We’ve had stories from past clients that an issue happened on their farm but because they were involved with AG Safe the liability was waived. Because they had taken the measures and had established protocols and procedures in place, they were not found at fault,” Gupton said.
In some parts of farming country, insurance companies offer incentives for safety training. North Dakota, for instance, encourages farmers to enroll in specific training programs with a discount of up to 25 percent on annual premiums. No such incentives are available in the Ohio Valley.
Whether the solution lies in more voluntary programs, more enforcement efforts, or some combination, the numbers on farming’s risks indicate that more should be done to make farms safer for families and workers.
Jeanna Glisson lives with painful reminders of the lives those numbers represent. This summer marks the tenth anniversary of Derek’s death at age 21.
“We used to live in a world where you think bad things don’t happen,” she said. “And now we’re like, ‘bad things could be right around the corner at any given moment.’ So we try to stay more aware, we try to be more safety conscious, I believe.” Glisson has her own incentive plan for bringing awareness to young farmers. This August, she is organizing a tractor pull to raise awareness about the dangers of farming through a scholarship in Derek’s memory.
Hazards & Controls
What hazards are agricultural workers exposed to?Farmworkers are exposed to numerous safety, health, environmental, biological, and respiratory hazards. These include vehicle rollovers, heat exposure, falls, musculoskeletal injuries, hazardous equipment, grain bins, unsanitary conditions, pesticides, and many others.
VEHICLE HAZARDSIn 2011, vehicular accidents caused close to half (276) of the 570 fatalities in agriculture.1 Injuries from vehicular incidents are serious and debilitating to farm activities. For more information, visit the Vehicle Hazards page.
HEATHeat-related illness. HEAT ILLNESS CAN BE DEADLY. Every year, thousands of workers become sick from exposure to heat, and some even die. These illnesses and deaths are preventable.
Workers exposed to hot and humid conditions are at a high risk of heat illness, especially if they are doing heavy work tasks or using bulky protective clothing and equipment. New workers may also be at greater risk than others if they have not built up a tolerance to hot conditions. Employers must take steps to help workers become acclimated.
Prevention. Heat-related illnesses, while potentially deadly, are easily preventable. When working in hot conditions, remember "WATER, REST, SHADE." Drink water every 15 minutes, even when not thirsty. Wear a hat and light-colored clothing. Rest in the shade. Be sure to watch out for fellow workers and know your location in case you need to call for assistance. Get help right away if there are any signs of illness.
LADDERS & FALLSDeaths and injuries from falls remain a major hazard for farmworkers.
- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), agricultural workers had a non-fatal, fall-related injury rate of 48.2 per 10,000 workers in 2011—far higher than the same type of injury rates in the transportation, mining or manufacturing industries.1
- Between 2007 and 2011 the BLS reported 167 agricultural workers' deaths were due to falls.1
- Fall Protection in the Agriculture Sector*
- Guidance note: Falls prevention in the agricultural sector*
MUSCULOSKELETAL INJURIESWorkers in agricultural operations for both crop and animal production typically use repetitive motions in awkward positions and which can cause musculoskeletal injuries.2
Ergonomic risk factors are found in jobs requiring repetitive, forceful, or prolonged exertions of the hands; frequent or heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying of heavy objects; and prolonged awkward postures. Vibration and cold may intensify these conditions.
New technology may reduce some types of ergonomic injuries but increase others. For instance, while dairy farmers have traditionally been at a higher risk for developing osteoarthritis of the knee3, more recent research has shown new technology used in milking has resulted in a shift in musculoskeletal disorders to the shoulders, hands and arms.
Ergonomic protections. Proper tools, padding to reduce vibration, and fewer activities with high repetition are some methods for reducing musculoskeletal injuries.4 The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's page on Ergonomics and Musculoskeletal Disorders provides general information on the topic. In addition, NIOSH's Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Farmworkers has information about early intervention to prevent these injuries for growers, safety specialists, human resources managers or anyone with an interest in safe farms.
HAZARDOUS EQUIPMENT AND MACHINERYFarmworkers routinely use knives, hoes, and other cutting tools; work on ladders; or use machinery in their shops. However, these simple tools can be hazardous and have the potential for causing severe injuries when used or maintained improperly.
- All tools should be maintained in good condition and used according to the manufacturers' instructions.
- Power tools must be properly grounded or double insulated and all guards or shields must be in place.
- Farmworkers should wear the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and make sure that clothing has no strings or loose ends that could be caught by machinery. Long hair should be tied back to prevent entanglement.
- In addition, shops should be well lit and have clear walkways to eliminate slips, trips and falls.
GRAIN BINS AND SILOSWhile safety issues surrounding grain bins and silos are sometimes overlooked on farms, they pose many dangers. Farmworkers are exposed to suffocation or engulfment hazards when working with grain bins and silos, as well as grain dust exposures and explosions. Suffocation is a leading cause of death in grain storage bins. In 2010, the number of workers engulfed by grain stored in bins hit a record high of 57 engulfments and 26 deaths. As a direct result, OSHA issued a Hazard Alert and an illustrated hazard wallet card* explaining the dangers of working inside grain storage bins. In 2012, 19 workers were engulfed by grain stored in bins, and 8 died.5
Suffocation can occur when a worker becomes buried (engulfed) by grain as they walk on moving grain or attempt to clear grain built up on the inside of a bin. Moving grain acts like "quicksand" and can bury a worker in seconds. "Bridged" grain and vertical piles of stored grain can also collapse unexpectedly if a worker stands on or near it. Additional information on safety and health issues associated with grain handling, such as personal protective equipment, use of lifelines, lockout/tagout, and training is located on the OSHA Grain Handling Safety and Health Topics Page.
UNSANITARY CONDITIONSThe lack of drinking water, sanitation facilities and/or handwashing facilities can lead to many health effects. Farmworkers may suffer heat stroke and heat exhaustion from an insufficient intake of potable water, urinary tract infections due to urine retention from inadequate availability of toilets, agrichemical poisoning resulting from lack of handwashing facilities, and infectious and other communicable diseases from microbial and parasitic exposures.
The Field Sanitation standard (1928.110) applies to any agricultural establishment where eleven (11) or more workers are engaged on any given day in hand-labor operations in the field. OSHA standards require covered employers to provide: toilets, potable drinking water, and hand-washing facilities to hand-laborers in the field; to provide each worker reasonable use of the above; and to inform each worker of the importance of good hygiene practices.
PESTICIDES AND OTHER CHEMICALSPesticide exposure. Pesticides pose risks of short- and long- term illness to farmworkers and their families. Workers who mix, load or apply pesticides (known as pesticide handlers) can be exposed to toxic pesticides due to spills and splashes, defective, missing or inadequate protective equipment, direct spray, or drift. Workers who perform hand labor tasks in areas that have been treated with pesticides face exposure from direct spray, drift or contact with pesticide residues on the crop or soil.
Pesticides can present a hazard to applicators, to harvesters reentering a sprayed field, to family members due to take-home contamination, and to rural residents via air, ground water and food. Workers may be exposed to pesticides in a variety of ways, including: working in a field where pesticides have recently been applied; breathing in pesticide "drift" from adjoining or nearby fields; working in a pesticide-treated field without appropriate PPE; eating with pesticide-contaminated hands; eating contaminated fruits and vegetables; and eating in a pesticide-contaminated field. Workers may also be exposed to pesticides if they drink from, wash their hands, or bathe in irrigation canals or holding ponds, where pesticides can accumulate.
Pesticide protection. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees pesticide use through the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). The WPS is a regulation for agricultural pesticides which is aimed at reducing the risk of pesticide poisonings and injuries among agricultural workers and pesticide handlers. The WPS protects employees on farms, forests, nurseries, and greenhouses from occupational exposure to agricultural pesticides. The regulation covers two types of workers:
- Pesticide handlers -- those who mix, load, or apply agricultural pesticides; clean or repair pesticide application equipment; or assist with the application of pesticides in any way.
- Agricultural workers -- those who perform tasks related to the cultivation and harvesting of plants on farms or in greenhouses, nurseries, or forests. Workers include anyone employed for any type of compensation (including self-employed) doing tasks -- such as carrying nursery stock, repotting plants, or watering -- related to the production of agricultural plants on an agricultural establishment. Workers do not include office employees, truck drivers, mechanics, and any others not engaged in handling, cultivation, or harvesting activities.
Hazard Communication. Chemicals must be properly labeled so farmworkers know the identity and hazards of the chemicals they may be exposed to at work. OSHA has information to assist employers and workers ensure that hazard communication is properly addressed in their workplaces. In addition, certain OSHA standards address hazard communications. As explained in 1910.1200(b)(5)(i), pesticides covered under FIFRA are exempt from the OSHA labeling requirements since EPA regulates these labels.
RESPIRATORY DISTRESSRespiratory hazards. Respiratory hazards. Respiratory hazards in barns, manure pits, machinery and silos range from acute to chronic air contaminants. Farmworkers' most common respiratory hazards are bioaerosols, such as organic dusts, microorganisms, and endotoxins and chemical toxicants from the breakdown of grain and animal waste. Inorganic dust, from silicates in harvesting and tilling, is prevalent but less significant.6
Changes to farming mechanisms have both improved working conditions and increased exposure to respiratory hazards—mainly due to the increased density in animal confinement.6
Respiratory protection. Control of aerosols might include the enclosure and ventilation of tractors, applying moisture to friable material, and respirators.6
Helpful links include:
- OSHA's Safety and Health Topic page on Respiratory Protection.
- OSHA's Safety and Health Topics page on Cotton Dust.
- NIOSH Hazard Control page on Control of Organic Dusts From Bedding Choppers in Dairy Barns.
- OSHA's Safety and Health Topics page on Ventilation.
ZOONOTIC INFECTIONS & RELATED HAZARDSZoonoses are infectious diseases common to animals and humans. As new infections evolve, the numbers and types of zoonoses change. More recent types of these infections include avian flu, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and West Nile virus. The agricultural worker's risk of acquiring a zoonotic infection varies with the type and species of animal and the geographic location.
The National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Veterinary Infection Control Committee* have identified several methods to prevent zoonotic infections, including:
- Personal protective actions and equipment, such as, hand hygiene, the use of appropriate gloves and outer protection, facial and respiratory protection and the tracking of aggressive animals, so that restraints are used when necessary.
- Environmental infection control, such as cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and equipment, vaccinating healthy animals, isolating diseased animals, disposing of infected tissues or dead animals appropriately and controlling the infestation of pests which can be a carrier of these infections.
- Worker health, such as vaccinating workers and providing proper training.
- Having an approved sharps container,
- Never removing the needle cap with one's mouth,
- Avoiding the recapping of needles,
- Wearing the appropriate personal protection equipment, such as gloves.
NOISEThousands of workers every year suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels, and research has shown that those who live and work on farms have had significantly higher rates of hearing loss than the general population.8 In fact, farming is among the occupations recognized as having the highest risks for hearing loss.9
Tractors, forage harvesters, silage blowers, chain saws, skid-steer loaders, grain dryers, squealing pigs and guns are some of the most typical sources of noise on the farm. Studies suggest that lengthy exposure to these high sound levels have resulted in noise-induced hearing loss to farmworkers of all ages, including teenagers. Hearing loss is not as dramatic nor as sudden as an injury from a tractor overturn or machine entanglement, but it is permanent.
Employers can achieve noise reduction in several ways - usually related to the maintenance of the equipment:
- Worn, loose, or unbalanced machine parts can increase decibel levels during operation. Regular lubrication and parts replacement (bearings, mufflers, silencers, etc.,) reduce friction and lower noise levels.
- Larger engines that can be operated at lower speeds reduce noise levels, and may even conserve fuel.
- Vibration isolation pads may be installed under the legs of noisy equipment to reduce noise generated by the equipment vibrating on a cement floor.
- Newer chainsaws and leaf blowers have flexible mountings to reduce vibration-induced noise as well.
- Tractor and skid-steers can be purchased with sound reducing cabs and tightly fitted cab doors and windows to reduce how much outside noise reaches the operator.
- Acoustical materials may be installed on walls and ceilings to enclose sound.
Noise and Hearing Conservation - OSHA's Safety and Health Topics Page on Occupational Noise Exposure provides a comprehensive review of the hazards of noise, the means of protection, as well as OSHA requirements.
OTHER HAZARDSFarmworkers may face a number of other hazards due to being outside. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's (NIOSH's) Workplace Safety and Health Topics page on Hazards to Outdoor Workers includes information on:
- Other Biological Hazards. These include vector-borne diseases, venomous wildlife and insects, and poisonous plants.
- Extreme Cold.
- Ultraviolet Radiation.
- Manure pits.
- Flat storage buildings.
Skin Disorders. Workers in the agricultural sector are at risk of potentially harmful exposures of the skin. The NIOSH Workplace Safety & Health Topics page on Skin Exposures & Effects provides information on the different types of exposures and the associated hazards.
Electrical Hazards. Electrical hazards in agriculture range from the dangers of hitting overhead wires when using large equipment to the possibility of hitting underground wires when digging. OSHA's page on Electrical Safety and the NIOSH Workplace Safety & Health Topics page on Electrical Safety provide resources on preventing a range of electrical accidents.