Taking the time to think about safe work practices on the farm…is time well spent

Farming is often considered to be an idyllic occupation based on media portrayal of family working together, farms handed down from generation to generation, and images of awe-inspiring countryside.

Farming is often considered by the public to be an idyllic occupation based on media portrayal of family working together, farms handed down from generation to generation, and images of awe-inspiring countryside with tractors slowly bumping down a beautiful shady lane.  What isn’t readily understood is that the agriculture industry can be one of the most intense and dangerous industries in the United States.

The agriculture industry employs approximately 2 to 4 million people nationwide, and includes the highest percentage of ‘self-employed’ individuals of all industries in the U.S1.  According to the 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (BLS CFOI), agriculture had the highest fatality rate of all industries nationwide2.  In 2016, there were over 54,000 reported non-fatal injuries in the agriculture industry with the highest incidence rate occurring in workers involved in hog and pig farming, which includes ‘breeding, farrowing, and the raising of weanling pigs, feeder pigs, or market size hogs’ (North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) Code 1122)3.  It is important to note that these estimates, which are generally based on employer reporting, may be a significant underestimate of non-fatal injuries. The agriculture industry employs many ‘seasonal’ workers, migrant and undocumented workers, is comprised of a significant number of small and family-run farms not required to report to BLS, and often injuries related to work are not reported to employers due to fear of retribution – all potentially affecting data accuracy1.   

The Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Michigan State University tracks work-related injury, illness, and fatalities in the State of Michigan (www.oem.msu.edu).  In Michigan in 2015, there were a reported 21 fatalities and 678 work-related farm injuries4.  Table 1.shows the incidence of traumatic work-related fatalities in Michigan as compared to the United States by industry sector in 2015.

Table 1 PQ 12_2017

More than half (n=11) of the 21 fatalities were operators, and four were identified as hired labor5. ‘Hired labor’ may include family members who are paid, office workers, maintenance workers, etc., but excludes contract/migrant workers. There were nine ‘machine’ related fatalities, with eight of the nine (89%) involving tractors5. Four of the eight fatalities involving tractors were the result of a rollover, with none of the tractors possessing rollover protection5. The other four individuals were run-over.  The final ‘machine’ related fatality involved a teenage farm worker who became entangled in a hay elevator’s chain and sprocket, powered by a tractor5.  Other causes of death included animal (n=1), fall (n=1), homicide (n=2), motor vehicle (n=3), struck-by (n=2), suicide (n=1), and toxic exposure (n=2)5.

In 2015 there were 678 work-related farm injuries in the state treated in the emergency department or hospitalized4. Farm injuries that were treated in doctors’ offices or self-treated are not included in the 678 total. The majority of injuries were to the upper and lower extremities (39% and 24.8% respectively), followed by injuries to the head (15.4%) and back (10.3%)4.  Injuries were characterized as contusion/bruise (29.2%) followed by fractures (17.6%) and laceration/cut/punctures (16.4%) (Figure 1)6.  

Table 2 PQ 12_2017

In 2004, the MSU Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine began tracking work-related amputations in Michigan.  There were 6,091 amputations statewide in workers across all industries (2006-2016) 7. The agriculture industry in Michigan had the highest rate of amputations (2006-2015 ) (Figure 2), with the leading cause(s) of amputation being saws (18%), presses (12%), pinched between objects (12%), struck by an object (9%), and caught in chain/pulley/gears/belt (9%)7

Table 3 PQ 12_2017

In its Farm Safety Fact Sheet, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) describes the most common health and safety hazards found on the farm, as well as risk factors for injury and illness8.  While some of these risk factors may be intuitive, others may not be as obvious. Those ‘new’ to the industry (e.g. small-scale producers and inexperienced growers), those under the age of 15 and adults over the age of 65 (e.g. hearing loss and loss of mobility) have been reported to be at increased risk for injuries and fatalities particularly when working with machines and mechanical equipment8. Training, proper machine guarding, and following manufacturer’s recommendations for maintenance may reduce machine/equipment related injuries and fatalaties8. Incorrect use or the absence of use of protective equipment is also strongly associated with injuries and fatalities.  Use of equipment such as seat belts and rollover protection on tractors, and the use of personal protective equipment (i.e protective clothing, gloves, safety glasses, respirators, etc.) can also reduce the risk of illness, injury and death. In addition to making sure equipment is in good repair and employees (and family) have been trained on safety and health hazards on the farm, having an emergency action plan (EAP) in place has the potential to positively impact health and survival outcomes should an adverse event (i.e. fire, explosion, natural disaster, injury, illness, etc.) occur.  The MSU Division of Occupational and Environmental Health has recently published two hazard alerts focused on safe animal handling, and preventing farm-related machinery entanglements. Click on the links below to access these documents.

Safe Animal Handling to Prevent Farm-Related Injuries and Death: http://www.oem.msu.edu/images/Alerts/AnimalHazardAlert.pdf

Farm-Related Machinery Entanglements in Michigan: http://www.oem.msu.edu/images/Alerts/RotatingMachineryHazardAlert.pdf

Developing and implementing workplace safety and health programs costs far less than the cost of an injury, or worst case, a fatality.  A safe work environment lends itself to fewer employee lost workdays, improved productivity and quality, improved morale, and a reduction in employee turnover – all positively affecting the farms bottom-line.

For assistance with identifying risk factors for employee injury and illness on your farm, as well as for support in developing and implementing safe work practices and health and safety programs, please contact your local MSU Extension Educator or Melissa Millerick-May in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at MSU (melissa.may@hc.msu.edu).

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