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 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.
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.
Deaths and injuries from falls remain a major hazard for farmworkers.
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:
Workers 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.
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.
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, 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 [245 KB PDF*, 2 pages] 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.
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.
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:
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.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
Helpful links include:
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:
Worker health, such as vaccinating workers and providing proper training.7 Worker health, such as vaccinating workers and providing proper training. 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:
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.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:
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.
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:
Confined Space. Besides grain storage, farmworkers face dangers in entering other confined spaces such as:
A NIOSH Alert publication, Preventing Deaths of Farm Workers in Manure Pits, 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.
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), United States Department of Labor. Occupational Injuries and Illnesses and Fatal Injuries Profiles database queried by industry for Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting (GP2AFH), Accessed June 2013.
2 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 Medicine, 50(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.
3 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.
4 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.
5 Issa, S., Roberts, M., Field, B., 2012 Summary of Grain Entrapments in the United States. Purdue University.
6 Kirkhorn, S.R., Garry, V.F., "Agricultural Lung Diseases." Environmental Health Perspectives, 108(4):705-712, 2000.
7 Langley, R., Morgan, W.E., "Livestock Handling-Minimizing Worker Injuries." Journal of Agromedicine, 2010 July; 15(3):226-35.
8 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.
9 Sliwinska-Kowalska M, Davis A., "Noise-induced hearing loss." Noise Health [serial online], 2012;14:274-80.
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