Hazards & Controls
Farmworkers are exposed to numerous safety, health, environmental, biological, and respiratory hazards. These include hazards related to grain bins and silos, hazard communication of chemicals, noise, musculoskeletal injuries, heat, and others. Learn about controls and solutions related to these and other hazards.
Agricultural workers may be exposed to animals that can transmit diseases.
Zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, are diseases that can be transmitted from vertebrate animals to humans. Zoonoses are caused by bacteria, protozoa, fungi, viruses, parasites or prions, which are often part of an animal's natural flora (i.e., microorganisms that live in and on the animal) but are able to cause disease in humans. Infections can result from direct contact with animals or their products such as manure or placenta. Direct transmission can also occur through consumption of animal products (e.g., raw meat, raw milk, etc.) or through an animal bite. Humans can also become indirectly infected by contact with contaminated soil, food, or water. Farmers, ranchers, veterinarians, slaughterhouse workers, and other agricultural workers have a higher risk of contracting zoonoses because of their close contact with animals.
Some examples of zoonotic diseases include: Anthrax, Bovine Tuberculosis, Brucellosis, Cryptosporidiosis, Giardiasis, Hantavirus diseases, Leptospirosis, Ovine Chlamydiosis, Psittacosis and Rabies. Outbreaks of avian flu (normally produces a mild disease in aquatic birds), Q fever (a disease common in cattle, sheep and goats), and certain strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) normally restricted to certain animals are recent examples of zoonoses.
Arboviruses are infectious agents that are transmitted to humans by arthropods, such as ticks and mosquitos. The recent Zika and West Nile Virus outbreaks are examples of arbovirus outbreaks.
An agricultural worker's risk of acquiring a zoonotic, arboviral or other animal-borne infection varies with the type of work tasks he or she performs, the kind(s) of animal(s) to which he or she has exposure and the geographic location of the worksite.
OSHA maintains resources for employers and workers in operations that may expose them to animals and animal-borne diseases, including:
Safety and Health Topics web pages:
- Avian Flu Fact Sheet (in English and Spanish)
- West Nile Virus Fact Sheet (in English and Spanish)
- Zika Virus Fact Sheet (in English; see Zika page for Spanish)
- Avian Flu QuickCards - Variety of QuickCards targeted to specific worker populations
- Flu: Protecting Swine Production Workers from Influenza QuickCard
- Rodents, Snakes, and Insects QuickCard
- West Nile Virus QuickCard (in English and Spanish)
- Zika Virus Protection for Outdoor Workers (in English and Spanish)
The National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians has identified several important measures for preventing zoonotic infections in workers, including:
- Worker infection control measures:
- Hand hygiene;
- Appropriate use of personal protective equipment (e.g., gloves and outer protection, facial and respiratory protection);
- Making vaccinations available to workers, as appropriate; and
- Worker training, including on these infection control measures.
- Environmental control measures:
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and equipment;
- Vaccinating healthy animals;
- Isolating diseased animals;
- Tracking aggressive animals, so that restraints may be used when necessary;
- Disposing of infected tissues or dead animals appropriately; and
- Controlling the infestation of pests which can be carriers of infectious agents.
Needlestick and Related Hazards
Needlesticks, common in veterinary medicine, can cause serious injury. Needlesticks may result in the inoculation of vaccines containing live organisms, chemotherapeutics and other chemicals, hormones or infective materials. In addition, the wound can serve as a portal of entry for infectious agents other than those contained in the needle.
Needlestick injuries are preventable by following OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standard (29 CFR 1910.1030) which was amended pursuant to the 2000 Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act. The National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Veterinary Infection Control Committee have identified several methods to prevent needlestick and related injuries, including:
- Having an approved sharps container;
- Never removing the needle cap by mouth;
- Avoiding recapping needles; and
- Wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment, such as gloves.
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. OSHA issued a Hazard Alert and an illustrated hazard wallet card 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, use of lifelines, lockout/tagout, and training is located on the OSHA Grain Handling Safety and Health Topics Page.
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 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.
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.
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:
Workers in agricultural operations for both crop and animal production typically use repetitive motions in awkward positions and which can cause musculoskeletal injuries.
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 knee, 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. 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.
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 farms have had significantly higher rates of hearing loss than the general population. In fact, farming is among the occupations recognized as having the highest risks for hearing loss.
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.
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, 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.
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 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 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.
Changes to farming mechanisms have both improved working conditions and increased exposure to respiratory hazards—mainly due to the increased density in animal confinement.
Respiratory protection. Control of aerosols might include the enclosure and ventilation of tractors, applying moisture to friable material, and respirators.
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.
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 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.
Proper operation of farm vehicles can reduce accidents, injuries and fatalities in agricultural operations.
General vehicle safety
- Do not allow passengers to ride in the vehicle.
- Remove persons not involved in the activity from the site.
- Shut off vehicle for refueling.
- Park the vehicle whenever there is no driver inside, so that the motor is shut off, the brakes are engaged, the transmission is in park-lock or in gear, the keys are removed, and the attachments are disengaged.
- All farm equipment traveling on any roadway should be equipped with an approved Slow Moving Vehicle (SMV) emblem. Emblems should be clean and in good shape.
- Use a standardized system of hand signals to communicate when noise and or distance does not allow for verbal communication.
- Falling Object Protective Structures (FOPS) should be installed on equipment where the user runs the risk of being struck by falling debris.
- Never tow an implement that is improperly hitched.
- Store away from structures housing livestock-to reduce the likelihood of fire.
- Do not store with fuel storage tanks.
- Do not store with debris.
- Ensure that electrical lines are high enough for vehicles to pass below.
- Ensure there is an easy exit from the storage structure.
- Ensure the storage structure is lockable.
- Ensure the floor surfaces are smooth and clean.
- Remove keys from all vehicles.
- Do not allow non-employees or children into storage structures.
The OSH Act requires an approved Roll-over Protective Structure (ROPs) for all agricultural tractors over 20 horsepower that were manufactured after October 25, 1976, and which are operated by a hired worker. See 1928.51(b)(1). See also the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health page on affordable ROPs and Science Blog, discussing the National ROPS Rebate Program (NRRP) that is run by the National Tractor Safety Coalition.
Dangers exist from improperly hitching a tractor, using steer skidders incorrectly, carbon monoxide poisoning, and clothing and hair entanglement in improperly guarded moving parts.
Given that harvesting equipment may be used once a year over relatively few days, the operator should re-familiarize themselves with the piece of equipment, by inspecting it and reviewing proper operating procedures. The addition of harvesting equipment to tractors can change the balance of the vehicle and requires farmworkers' constant attention. Plan harvesting so equipment travels downhill on steep slopes to avoid overturns. Space tractor wheels as far apart as possible when operating on slopes.
The National Agricultural Tractor Safety Initiative provides information on research and resources available to help reduce tractor hazards.
Power take-off (PTO) shafts
The PTO is a driveshaft, usually on a tractor, that can be used to provide power to an attachment or separate machine. It is designed to be easily connected and disconnected. The PTO allows implements to draw energy from the tractor's engine.
Tractors and harvesters should be inspected before they are operated and all operators should be trained in the safe operation. Farmworkers should understand the dangers of the PTO shaft.
Clothing can get caught in PTOs and the associated shafts and joints. The worker may be pulled into the shaft, which often results in loss of a limb or death. Some implements do use plastic guards to try to keep a person from becoming entangled in a PTO shaft, but even with guards, farmworkers need to exercise caution around PTO shafts when they are connected into a tractor or truck. Farmworkers need to know the following:
- All shielding should remain in place and any damaged or missing shields should be replaced.
- Farmworkers should not wear loose clothing or have long hair while working around a running machine. Hair and clothing can be caught by the machinery.
- Farmworkers should stop the PTO when dismounting from the vehicle.
All terrain vehicles (ATVs)
The National Safety Council has developed recommendations for using ATVs. The recommendations include:
- ATVs with an engine size of 70cc to 90cc should be operated by people at least 12 years of age.
- ATVs with an engine size of greater than 90cc should only be operated by people at least 16 years of age.
- Wear appropriate riding gear: DOT-, Snell ANSI-approved helmet, goggles, gloves, over-the-ankle boots, long-sleeve shirt and long pants.
- Read owners' manuals carefully.
- ATVs are not made for multiple riders. Never carry anyone else on the ATV.
- Any added attachments affect the stability, operating and braking of the ATV.
- Just because an attachment is available doesn't mean that it can be used without increasing your risk of being injured.
- Do not operate the ATV on streets, highways or paved roads.
OSHA's Youth in Agriculture eTool describes common agricultural hazards and offers potential safety solutions that both employers and young workers can use to prevent accidents and avoid injury on the job. In addition, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has created the Childhood Agricultural Injury Prevention Initiative to identify and support the research needed to prevent youth injuries on farms, as well as raise awareness of the issue.
The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division sets other restrictions, including child labor laws, for youth in agriculture.