National Center for Farmworker Health
Call for Health
1770 FM 967 • Buda, TX 78610
(512) 312-2700
(800) 531-5120
fax (512) 312-2600
March 2015
Feb Apr

About America’s Farmworkers

Occupational Safety and Health

The agriculture industry is consistently one of the most dangerous industries in which to work in the United States. The occupational safety risks involved in farm labor are numerous and can include exposure to pesticides, skin disorders, infectious diseases, lung problems, hearing and vision disorders, and strained muscles and bones.

Those employed in this occupation are at much greater risk of death than workers in every industry except construction. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's own data, agriculture is one of the most accident-prone industries in the United States. Although the occupational fatality rate for all private sector industries is 4.3 per 100,000 full-time employees, the rate for the broad category of agriculture, forestry, and fishing was 23.9. Other data sources indicate even higher accident and fatality rates in agriculture. The most recent data released by the United States Department of Labor showed that fatalities among agricultural workers were up 23% from 145 in 2004 to 178 in 2005. Every day, about 500 agricultural workers suffer lost-work-time injuries, and about 5% of these result in permanent impairment. In a study of 287 migrant workers, 25 had reported an injury in the previous 3 years.

When analyzing the reasons for the dangerous nature of farm labor, one must begin by understanding the basic characteristics and requirements of farm labor. Agricultural labor is seasonal and intensive. Planting, thinning, and harvesting are not year-round activities; however, they are crucial to crop production, and the timeframe in which they must occur is determined by the seasons and the weather. Farmworkers' work hours accommodate the crops, not vice versa. Failure to perform any of these activities at the appropriate time can result in a lost crop so the urgency to accomplish these tasks according to nature's timetable compels farmworkers to work in the fields in all seasons and in all weather conditions including extreme heat, cold, rain, bright sun, and damp. Beyond the basic requirements of farm labor, which creates an environment more conducive to injury, there exist other very specific occupational hazards associated with agriculture.

The work performed in agriculture often requires stoop labor, repetitive lifting, and quick wrist and hand movements, working with the soil, climbing, and carrying heavy loads. It is not surprising that musculoskeletal injuries are inherent to agricultural labor. The ergonomic conditions of agricultural labor lend themselves to back and muscle pain. "In 1996, 34% of lost-time injuries were sprains and strains and 24% were back injuries".

Farmworkers also come into direct contact with plants and soil, which are frequently treated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which can pose additional risks. Pesticide exposure is the cause of a variety of occupational illnesses, including eye injuries, cancer, respiratory illnesses, and dermatitis. Between 1982 and 1993, California averaged 1500 reports of pesticide exposure each year. 41% of these exposures occurred in agricultural workers.

EPA estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 incidents of pesticide illness per year from farm work. However, EPA acknowledges this estimate is based on severe underreporting of illnesses. Anecdotal reports from clinicians indicate that many cases of pesticide poisoning are unreported because patients do not seek treatment, or are misdiagnosed because the symptoms of pesticide poisoning can resemble those of viral infection.

High air temperatures and humidity put agricultural workers at special risk of heat stress. Pesticide workers and early-entry workers are at particularly great risk. The special clothing and equipment they wear for protection from exposure to pesticides can restrict the evaporation of sweat, blocking the body's natural way of cooling itself, which results in a buildup of body temperature. Exposure to certain pesticides can also produce sweating, and there can be combined effects with exposure to heat. In addition, pesticides are absorbed through hot, sweaty skin more quickly than through cool skin.

In regard to pesticides, both OSHA and the EPA have laws on the books which apply to migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Because of possible jurisdictional difficulties and because of the overlap in the regulations, OSHA deferred its standard to the EPA Worker Protection Standard. Despite improvements in the enforcement of the Worker Protection Standard, many workers have not received training in pesticide application. A 2005 study of farmworkers in Texas found that 56% reported having ever received training/instruction in the safe use of pesticides while 47% reported having received training within the previous five years as required by WPS. The result is that agricultural workers are often ill prepared to protect themselves from the potentially hazardous chemicals found around them.

Other occupational risks associated with farm labor are those associated with unsanitary conditions and the lack of potable water. There are anecdotal reports of farmworkers resorting to irrigation ditches and runoff ponds when safe water is not available for drinking and washing. Non-potable water is contaminated by pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and organic wastes and drinking and bathing in such water exposes farmworkers to potentially harmful chemicals and to water-borne parasites.

OSHA regulations require that agricultural employers who employ or house 11 or more workers provide drinking water, hand washing facilities, and toilets for their employees. Farms with 10 or fewer employees, however, are exempt from these requirements. The intention of this exemption was to avoid placing an undue financial burden on small farms, but as a result, these very basic amenities are not required by law for many farmworkers regardless of the conditions or hours required of them by their work in the fields.

Compliance is poor concerning the regulations that are in effect. The fact that OSHA can afford to inspect only a small portion of the establishments that are subject to the law raises questions as to the actual magnitude of non-compliance with the regulations. A North Carolina survey found that only 4% of farmworkers surveyed had access to drinking water, hand washing facilities, and toilets. A 2002 study in Colorado, based on observations from 1,461 farmworkers at five camps, found that two out of five camps did not have safe drinking water.

In addition to these hazards, another risk associated with farm labor is the actual process of migration. Many farmworkers must travel frequently and over significant distances to secure agricultural employment. According to the March 2005 NAWS report, 43% of farmworkers are classified as "shuttle migrants," meaning that they travel between farm jobs with an approximate distance of fewer than 75 miles, although they may reside more than 75 miles away from these jobs. An additional 18% of farmworkers are classified as "follow-the-crop migrants," meaning that they hold at least two farm jobs a year, which are more than 75 miles apart and require the farmworker to set up a temporary abode. This travel adds an additional potential hazard not commonly associated with other types of employment. This level of mobility often leads to gaps in proper access to basic services. Since farmworkers may stay in areas for short periods of time, they are often unfamiliar with local access points for health care or social services. This leads to decreased utilization of the primary access points for prevention and education of health issues and contributes to the health disparities evidenced in this population.