June 21, 2023
Agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States.
Farmers and ranchers contend daily with numerous risks that can injure, maim, and, in the most extreme circumstances, prove fatal. Weather, animal, and machinery issues are among numerous factors intrinsic to farm life that pose hazards.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) website, “Agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries. Farmers are at very high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries; and farming is one of the few industries in which family members (who often share the work and live on the premises) are also at risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries.”
The numbers are staggering for both injuries and fatalities. NIOSH data show:
In 2021, workers in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industry experienced one of the highest fatal injury rates at 20 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers, compared to a rate of 3.6 deaths per 100,000 workers for all U.S. industries.
Transportation incidents, which include tractor overturns and roadway crashes, were the leading cause of death for farmers and farm workers. Other leading causes were contact with objects and equipment, violence by other persons or animals, and falls, slips, and trips.
In 2021, almost two-thirds (65%) of deaths in the agriculture, forestry, and commercial fishing (AgFF) industry occurred to workers 55 years of age and older.
In 2020, 11,880 injuries in agricultural production required days away from work; however, underreporting injuries is well-known in this industry.
From 2014-2015, 42% of all hired crop worker injuries were classified as a sprain or strain.
In 2014, an estimated 12,000 youth were injured on farms; 4,000 of these injuries were due to farm work.
In 1990, NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developed programs and established a network of centers across the country to address the high risks of injuries and illnesses experienced by workers and families in agriculture. These centers conduct outreach and research on injuries and illnesses associated with agriculture, including pesticide exposure, respiratory health, musculoskeletal disorders, underserved populations, and mental health.
Amanda Wickman is Program Director for The Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention, and Education (SW Ag Center), which serves Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The Center was created in 1995 at The University of Texas at Tyler Health Science Center.
Wickman says the center conducts innovative research and outreach to prevent injuries and illnesses among AgFF workers.
“Our Center is made up of a small group of dedicated multidisciplinary professionals and we work with strategic partners to expand our reach and influence across the region,” Wickman says.
The work they do is important. “We work with emerging issues and persistent issues that have been around for generations.”
She says the SW Ag Center develops programs to educate farmers and others involved in agriculture about the inherent dangers in agriculture and to help make sure workers go home safely to their families at the end of the day.
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“A lot of our programming addresses the mindset that farmers and ranchers are independent, strong, and resourceful and don’t need help. We offer evidence that strength includes knowing when to reach out for help when you need it.”
“It’s sometimes hard for farmers to admit they need help, especially for mental health services. Many agricultural workers don’t even go to the doctor for physical injuries. They contend that hard seasons, the ups and downs, are just part of the job.
“Facing variables with weather, machinery breakdowns, and labor issues are part of the job. But being a farmer doesn’t make you a superman or a superwoman. Sometimes you need assistance.”
Wickman says the SW Ag Center works across the gamut of agricultural interests — the Extension Service, Departments of Agriculture, and trade associations (cotton, grain, cattle, fisheries, and others).
“We try to produce resources these organizations need, including training and educational materials. We recently worked with the Texas Department of Agriculture to launch the AgriStress Helpline, a resource that people can call or text to receive immediate aid. Assistance is available in 160 languages.
“This is a great resource for rural residents and it is different from other hotlines. Call receivers for this helpline are specifically trained to understand the unique stressors in rural and agricultural environments.” [AgriStress Helpline: 833-897-2474]
Wickman said since Covid, telehealth, including mental health assistance, has become a viable option, especially for rural residents. “A stigma is still attached to mental health,” she says. “Many farmers don’t want others to see their truck parked outside a mental health clinic. Telehealth offers an option to receive vital services from the privacy of your own home.”
Wickman says injuries associated with tractor overturns are among the top dangers for agriculture workers, but also one of the easiest to prevent.
“The best way to prevent tractor deaths is a rollover protection structure (ROPS),” she said. “ROPS and wearing a seat belt are the best ways to improve safety on tractors. It saves lives.”
She says over the last few months the SW Ag Center has received endowment funding to offer roll bar retrofits. “The endowment will reimburse up to 70% of the cost to install roll bars. We have completed two retrofits and have four more in process. We look forward to continuing this program and helping more tractor operators make their equipment safe.
“We aim to improve overall equipment safety. We emphasize the importance of turning off a machine before exiting and before attempting repairs. Maintaining proper shields is another easy way to prevent incidents.”
She says operators can do a lot to protect themselves. “But industry also can come at safety from an engineering perspective, making equipment safer. That’s a better way to get a better outcome.”
She said ATV accidents and interactions with livestock also account for a significant number of injuries. “We have a lot of videos on livestock safety, including signs of aggression. Differences among breeds may be factors. Intact males and mothers are typically more aggressive.” You can check out the full library of videos available from the U.S. Ag Safety and Health Centers @USagCenters on YouTube.
She said different information packages are available for commercial cattle producers and 4-H. “Each sector has different needs although some safety recommendations overlap. It is important to produce the least amount of stress for the producer and the animal. Less stress on the animal results in a higher quality product.”
Wickman said protecting youth on the farm is a priority.
“We emphasize appropriate age, appropriate size, and appropriate maturity level,” she says.
“We work with some strong partners who have lost children to farm accidents. They are strong advocates for farm safety. They don’t want anyone else to suffer a loss like they did.”
“The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wisconsin, focuses solely on childhood safety and health related to agriculture. They have developed excellent youth guidelines for agricultural work. We share those guidelines with 4-H parents and FFA students.
“This is a great guide to help parents better understand when their kids are mature enough, old enough, big enough to operate certain pieces of equipment or to perform certain chores and tasks on the agricultural operation.”
Agricultural work will continue to include numerous hazards. Education and engineering solutions offer strategies to protect everyone who lives and works on an agricultural operation. The goal is to ensure the workers stay safe and healthy so the farm can stay profitable.
For more information please check: The University of Texas at Tyler Health Science Center (uthct.edu)
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