According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agriculture ranks among the top three hazardous industries. As a consequence, agricultural workers are subjected to a higher risk of numerous fatal and non-fatal injuries, as well as occupationally acquired diseases. Furthermore, in 2011, the U.S. Department of Labour found that in the United States, the injury rate for agricultural workers was over 40 percent higher than the rate for all workers and that the leading cause of fatalities was tractor overturns. However, in less developed countries these statistics are alarmingly higher. This may be attributed to the fact that in less developed countries agricultural activities are still performed manually, exposing its workers to a wide range of hazards. To add to this unfortunate situation, it has been suggested that health and safety issues in agriculture in less developed countries also exist because of ignorance, illiteracy, inadequate information on occupational hazards, and non-existent or inadequate training.

Health and Safety Hazards on Farms

In agriculture, major hazards to the workers exist, which can have undesirable consequences. These hazards include:

Vehicles and farm machinery: The use of vehicles and farm machinery is the leading cause of fatal accidents on farms in developing countries. The victims are run over, thrown off, or caught in the power take-off. According to the United States Department of Labour, in 2011, vehicular accidents accounted for half of the 570 fatalities in agriculture.

Heat-related illnesses: Agricultural workers are required to work out in the open air on a daily basis all year round, which exposes them to extremes of climatic conditions, inclusive of ultraviolet radiation and high temperatures.

Ergonomic conditions and musculoskeletal injuries: Agriculture is a job that involves carrying out a wide range of repeated strenuous physical activities in uncomfortable working postures for extended periods of time, such as planting crops in stooped or squatted positions.

Stress and other psychosocial disorders: Agriculture is considered to be one of the most stressful occupations. Agricultural workers work in the most stressful workplaces, and that stress may be attributed to financial problems, time pressures, diseases or pests, government policies, unpredictable weather conditions and work overload.

Biological agents and zoonotic infections: Contact with animals increases the risk of bites, infections, allergies and other health-related problems, as well as exposure to zoonoses.

Chemical agents and hazardous substances: Chemical use has become an essential part of modern farming systems exposing agricultural workers to a large number of chemical hazards, which are attributed to the use of: (a) fossil fuels and lubricants to operate farm machinery; (b) inorganic pesticides and fertilizers to minimize crop losses and maximize crop yields; and (c) vaccinations and other veterinary treatments to protect farm animals from diseases.

Slips, trips and falls: Deaths and injuries from falls remain a major hazard for farmworkers. The Bureau of Labour Statistics reported that 167 agricultural workers' deaths were due to falls in 2011.

Confined spaces: Agricultural workers are exposed to suffocation and engulfment hazards, as well as grain dust exposures and explosions when working in confined spaces, such as grain bins and silos. The U.S. Department of Labour reported suffocation as the leading cause of death in grain storage bins in 2010.

Unsanitary conditions: The lack of drinking water, sanitation facilities and/or hand-washing facilities can lead to many health effects. These may include urinary tract infections due to urine retention from inadequate availability of toilets, as well as infectious and other communicable diseases from microbial and parasitic exposures resulting from lack of hand-washing facilities.

Noise: Farming is among the occupations recognized as having the highest risks for hearing loss. Every year, thousands of agricultural workers suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels emanating from tractors, harvesters, animals, etc.

Farm Safety Challenges in Less Developed Countries

In less developed countries, agriculture is practised in an unusual organizational context. That is, it lacks an organizational framework, such as personnel departments and hierarchies of management, which are needed for occupational health and safety management techniques to efficiently and effectively operate. Further, due to the high significance placed on industrial development in these countries, their agricultural sector has been traditionally neglected. As a result, many farmers are unaware of the potential risks that exist as a result of their job and due to their work environment.

Improving Farm Safety

Ensuring the health and safety of agricultural workers is much more difficult in less developed countries than it is in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom due to the barriers that exist. Here are few strategies that can be implemented to mitigate the effects of the hazards and risks agricultural workers are exposed to.

Increase Awareness

Ensure that agricultural workers are knowledgeable of the hazards that exist due to their job role and within their workplace. Discuss safety hazards and emergency procedures with farm workers.

Encourage the Use of Personal Protective Equipment

Agricultural workers should be encourage to wear personal protective equipment, such as safety gloves, coveralls, boots, hats, aprons, goggles, face shields when working on farms. For more information on personal protective equipment, check out 6 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Guidelines Every Employee Should Know.

Provide Training

Train workers on:

  • Selecting, using and maintaining PPE
  • Reading and following instructions in equipment operator’s manuals and on product labels
  • Inspecting equipment routinely for problems that may cause accidents
  • Reviewing and following instructions in material safety data sheets (MSDS) and on labels that come with chemical products
  • Safe working practices

The Benefits of Improved Farm Safety

  • Reduction in worker fatalities, injuries and illnesses
  • Reduction in associated costs such as workers’ compensation insurance premiums, lost production and medical expenses
  • Improved morale and productivity