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Agricultural Workers: General Health and Safety

Working in agriculture has its fair share of risks and hazards. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each day an estimated 100 agricultural workers suffer an injury that results in lost work time.[1] It’s important to understand the types of risks and hazards agricultural workers face so that injuries can be prevented. Here’s a list of common agricultural risks and hazards and how to prevent them.

Common Hazards and Prevention Techniques

Animal-acquired Infections

Agricultural workers may be exposed to animals that can transmit diseases. These illnesses are transmitted through the microorganisms that live in and on the animal and come into direct contact with humans. Some examples include bovine tuberculosis, leptospirosis, and rabies, among others. Diseases transmitted through ticks and mosquitos are a higher risk for workers in agriculture.

To prevent these types of injuries, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians recommends workers practice proper hand hygiene (washing hands), appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and respiratory protection, vaccinations, and employee training on these hazards and prevention. In addition to employee controls, there are a few environmental controls that employers can put in place to reduce the risk of these hazards. These include cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and equipment, vaccinating healthy animals, isolating diseased animals, disposing of infected tissues or deceased animals appropriately, and controlling the infestation of pests likely carrying infectious diseases.[2]

Equipment and Machinery Injuries

Agriculture workers often use knives, hoes, and other cutting tools. They also work on ladders and operate machinery in the shop. While these tools may seem like they pose less of a risk, they can be hazardous and can cause serious injuries when improperly used or maintained.

To prevent these types of injuries, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends all tools must be maintained in good condition and used according to the manufacturer’s instructions. They also recommend that power tools be properly grounded or double insulated with all guards or shields in place. Workers should wear the proper PPE and ensure that clothing has no loose ends or strings that can get caught in machinery.[2]

Heat and Noise Hazards

Workers in the agriculture industry are also exposed to heat-related illnesses and potential hearing loss. Workers who are exposed to hot and humid conditions, especially if they are doing heavy work or using bulky protective clothing, are at a high risk of heat illness. When working in hot conditions and in direct sunlight, OSHA recommends workers remember, “water, rest, shade.” This includes drinking water every 15 minutes, wearing hats and light-colored clothing, and resting in the shade.[2]

Farming occupations have one of the highest risks of hearing loss. Tractors, forage harvesters, and blowers are some of the most typical sources of noise in the agricultural environment. When exposed to high sound levels for an extended time, can result in noise-induced hearing loss. Worn, loose, or unbalanced machine parts can increase decibel levels, so OSHA recommends regularly replacing parts to reduce friction and lower noise levels. Installing vibration isolation pads under noisy equipment can reduce noise generated by the equipment vibrating on the floor. Purchasing tractors and skid-steers with sound-reducing cabs can aid in hearing loss prevention. Additionally, workers can wear appropriate PPE such as earplugs or earmuffs.[2]

Pesticide-Related Illness

Pesticides pose risks of short and long-term illnesses to agriculture workers and their families. Workers’ exposure can happen in many ways, including working in a field where pesticides have recently been applied, breathing in pesticide drift from nearby fields, working in a pesticide-treated field without proper PPE, eating with pesticide-contaminated hands, or eating in a pesticide-contaminated field. Workers can also carry pesticides home with them and contaminate family members.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees pesticide use through the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). The WPS includes requirements for pesticide safety training, notifications of pesticide applications, use of PPE, decontamination supplies, and emergency medical assistance to reduce and prevent pesticide-related illnesses. Both the EPA and OSHA have requirements on respirator usage as it pertains to pesticides to keep workers as safe as possible.[2]

If you are operating in the agriculture industry, Harbor America can help ensure you’re following all required OSHA and EPA guidelines. Our team of safety and risk management professionals will assist your business with identifying risk and implementing controls to keep your workers as safe as possible from all potential hazards. Contact us to learn more about our services.


[1] CDC: Agricultural Safety

[2] OSHA- Agricultural Operations: Hazards and Controls

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