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.
In 2009, vehicular accidents caused close to half (280) of the 575 fatalities in agriculture. Injuries from vehicular incidents are serious and debilitating to farm activities. For more information, visit the Vehicle Hazards page.
Heat-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.Back to Top
LADDERS & FALLS
Deaths and injuries from falls remain a major hazard for farmworkers.
- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), cropworkers had a non-fatal, fall-related injury rate of 18.5 per 10,000 workers in 2009—far higher than the same type of injury rates in the transportation, mining or manufacturing industries.
- Between 2004 and 2009 the BLS reported 157 farmworkers' deaths were due to falls.
Fall protection and ladder safety. OSHA's Fall Protection topics page and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health's Fall Injuries Prevention in the Workplace site provide general information on different types of fall protection. The following resources provide fall protection guidance for farm workers and employers:
- Fall Protection in the Agriculture Sector [3 MB PDF, 36 pages]
- Guidance note: Falls prevention in the agricultural sector [1 MB PDF, 36 pages]
Workers in agricultural operations for both crop and animal production typically use repetitive motions in awkward positions and which can cause musculoskeletal injuries.1
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 knee2, 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.3 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.Back to Top
HAZARDOUS EQUIPMENT AND MACHINERY
Farmworkers 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 protection equipment (PPE) and make sure that clothing has no strings or loose ends that could be caught by machinery.
- In addition, shops should be well lit and have clear walkways to eliminate slips, trips and falls.
GRAIN BINS AND SILOS
While 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, 51 workers were engulfed by grain stored in bins, and 26 died — the highest number on record. As a direct result, OSHA issued a Hazard Alert and an illustrated hazard wallet card [245 KB PDF*, 2 pages] explaining the dangers of working inside grain storage bins.
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, lockout/tagout, and training is located on the OSHA Grain Handling Safety and Health Topics Page.Back to Top
The 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 inadequate availability of toilets and consequential urine retention, 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.Back to Top
PESTICIDES AND OTHER CHEMICALS
Pesticide 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, 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.
The WPS contains requirements for pesticide safety training, notification of pesticide applications, use of personal protective equipment, restricted-entry intervals after pesticide application, decontamination supplies, and emergency medical assistance. While EPA covers the use of respirators in the application of pesticides, OSHA's Safety and Health Topic page on Respiratory Protection provides general information on respirator use and OSHA standards that may apply with the use of other chemicals.
Hazard Communication. Chemicals must be properly labeled so farmworkers know the identity and hazards 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 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(5)(i), pesticides covered under FIFRA are exempt from the OSHA labeling requirements since EPA regulates these labels.Back to Top
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.5
Changes to farming mechanisms have both improved working conditions and increased exposure to respiratory hazards—mainly due to the increased density in animal confinement.5
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 HAZARDS
Zoonoses 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 [562 KB PDF, 20 pages] 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.
Vaccinating or treating farm animals with other injected medicine (such as antibiotics) also pose a hazard to farmworkers. Vaccines may include live viruses or bacteria, as well as chemicals.6 Hazards associated with vaccines include accidental inoculation, splashing the product into the eyes or mucous membrane, and contamination of the broken skin. The National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Veterinary Infection Control Committee [562 KB PDF, 20 pages] have identified several methods to prevent needlestick and related injuries, including:
- 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.
Thousands 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 farm have had significantly higher rates of hearing loss then the general population.7 The National Health Interview survey (1997-2003) found that farmworkers were twice as likely to report hearing difficulty than healthcare service workers.7
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.
In addition, employers may provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) but must train them in using the PPE correctly. OSHA's Safety and Health Topics Page on PPE describes proper use of personal protective equipment.
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.Back to Top
Farmworkers 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.
Confined Space. Besides grain storage, farmworkers face dangers in entering other confined spaces such as:
- Manure pits.
- Flat storage buildings.
A NIOSH Alert publication, Preventing Deaths of Farm Workers, provides basic guidance. In addition, OSHA's Safety and Health Topics page on Confined Space, provides further guidance on different types of confined spaces.
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.Back to Top
1 Kirkhorn, S.R., Earle-Richardson, G., Banks, R.J. "Ergonomic Risks and Musculoskeletal Disorders in Production Agriculture: Recommendations for Effective Research to Practice."Journal of Agromedicine. 15:281-299, 2010. Davis KG, Kotowski SE. "Understanding the ergonomic risk for musculoskeletal disorders in the United States agricultural sector." American Journal of Industrial Medicine50(7):501-511, 2007. Douphrate, D.I., Nonnenmann, M.W., Rosecrance, J.C., "Ergonomics in Industrialized Dairy Operations", Journal of Agromedicine.14:406-412, 2009.
2 Nonnenmann, M.W., Anton, D.C., Gerr, F., Yack, H.J. "Dairy Farm Worker Exposure to Awkward Knee Posture During Milking and Feeding Tasks." Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 7:483-489, 2010.
3 Cook, K.E., Field, W.E. "Proceedings of the "Arthritis, Agriculture, and Rural Life: State of the Art Research Practices, and Applications" Conference, West Lafayette, Indiana, May 11-13, 2011. Journal of Agromedicine. 16:311-318, 2011.
4 Ecobichon, D.J., Occupational hazards of pesticide exposure: sampling, monitoring, and measuring. Taylor & Francis, 1999. Popendorf, W. "Mechanisms of Clothing Exposure and Dermal Dosing during Spray Application." Performance of Protective Clothing: Second Symposium. (Amer. Soc. for Testing and Materials, Phil. PA). Edited by Mansdorf, S.Z., R. Sager, and A.P. Nielsen (1988): 611-624.
5 Kirkhorn, S.R., Garry, V.F. "Agricultural Lung Diseases." Environmental Health Perspectives.108(4):705-712, 2000.
6 Langley, R., Morgan, W.E. "Livestock Handling—Minimizing Worker Injuries." Journal of Agromedicine. 2010 July; 15(3):226-35
7 Ehlers, J.J, Graydon, P.S., "Noise-induced hearing loss in agriculture: Creating partnerships to overcome barriers and educate the community on prevention." Noise & Health, March-April 2011, 13:51, 142-46.