Regulations and PPE Help Make Farm Work Safer

By Kevin Ritchart

Every day, more than four million U.S. workers are directly involved in tending crops and livestock, picking and packaging produce, and slaughtering and processing meat, poultry, and seafood.

These workers are vital to ensuring that there’s an accessible supply of nutritious food for the public. But in many cases, these workers are performing jobs that adversely affect their health.

Most agricultural workers are paid low wages, and there’s a high rate of work-related injuries and fatalities associated with their daily tasks.

A Closer Look at the Dangers

The American Public Health Association (APHA) notes that farm and food production workers may also suffer from poor health based on their working conditions. But through its policies, the APHA is pushing for a sustainable food system that’s grounded in safe working conditions, fair wages, and human rights protections.

Food production workers are exposed to a wide range of hazards on a daily basis. For example, dairy and hog farm workers are constantly at risk of being injured by animals and heavy machinery.

Workers who handle livestock and poultry are at a higher risk of contracting zoonotic diseases like rabies, trichinosis, and others that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

Field workers who tend and harvest crops often suffer from heat-related illness, pesticide poisoning, and chronic back and shoulder injuries that result from repeated bending, reaching, and lifting.

Slaughterhouse workers expose themselves to repeated laceration and amputation dangers along with infections and exposure to antibiotic-resistant pathogens. They’re also at risk for musculoskeletal disorders that are caused by the intense, repetitive work they perform.

"Since the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) went into effect, fatality rates decreased from 18 deaths per 100,000 workers in 1970 to 3.4 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2015."

By the Numbers

The rate of fatal work-related injuries among agricultural workers is seven times higher than that of workers overall and two times higher than the rate for the construction and mining industries.

Additionally, the rate of non-fatal, work-related injuries is higher among workers in food production jobs, particularly relating to incidents requiring days away from work or restricted duty. The meatpacking and poultry industries rank among the highest U.S. industries when it comes to work-related injuries and illnesses.

While they can’t eliminate injuries completely, the use of safety goggles and cut-resistant or antimicrobial gloves can help workers limit their exposure to certain hazards.

No matter the industry, workplace injuries, illnesses, and disabilities are costly to the businesses, communities, governments, workers, and families involved. The annual cost of work-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities in the U.S., including productivity losses, is estimated at $250 billion.

Workers’ compensation covers less than 25 percent of these costs. As a result, families and taxpayers subsidize most of the lost income and medical costs from work-related injuries and illnesses.

Paying by the Piece

Certain agricultural workers are paid according to the amount of product harvested. This system can result in a higher weekly wage, but it encourages an intense pace that involves repetitive tasks, heavier loads, and other risk factors that could cause injuries.

One recent study showed that Latina farmworkers who were employed under piece-rate contracts were five times more likely to report an injury than those who did not work in a piece-rate system.

The piece-rate system encourages discriminatory practices and inequality and can be abused by employers to defraud workers. Farm workers report that the only way to consistently increase and ensure the use of safety equipment is to switch from the piece-rate system to an hourly wage.

Moving in the Right Direction

Since the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) went into effect, fatality rates decreased from 18 deaths per 100,000 workers in 1970 to 3.4 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2015.

While some small businesses consider government intervention to be costly and unnecessarily burdensome, enforcement of regulations — along with the proper use of personal protective equipment — is making agricultural work safer.