Safety program shown to reduce child deaths and injuries on U.S. farms

Farm Forum

FORT COLLINS, Colo.-An independent five-year review by members of the National Academies of Science has given the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program (AgFF) the highest score for relevance, 5 out of 5, and a 4 out of 5 for impact on worker safety and health. These are among the highest scores ever awarded to a government program of its kind.

As one of the nine regional centers for Agricultural Disease and Injury Research, Education, and Prevention within the AgFF program, the High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (HICAHS) in Fort Collins plays an integral role in reducing occupational injury and illness among agricultural workers. HICAHS’ current scope of work includes but is not limited to: reducing respiratory disease on farms through its research on organic dust aerosols; reducing injuries and fatalities among farmworkers through the design of safer farm equipment, and reducing illness in workers in its study of growing microbial resistance to antibiotics. HICAHS primarily serves the states of Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Utah, but its impact extends nationally and internationally.

“The NIOSH Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing program is completely unique; this is the organization that protects forestry workers, fishermen and farmers, the people who produce food for all of us,” says Dr. Stephen Reynolds, director of HICAHS and professor at Colorado State University. “Our goal is to reduce illness, injuries and fatalities on site. Our success stems not just from cutting edge research but through working in partnership with farmers and ranchers, parents, and members of the agribusiness community to develop solutions and best practices.”

Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing occupations are the most dangerous in the United States, with a fatality rate eight times higher than all other U.S. industries combined-twice as great as in mining or transportation; two-and-one half times greater than construction. In 2011, 557 workers died and tens of thousands were injured while doing farm, forestry or fishing work at a cost of $4 billion in direct and indirect costs. More than one million farm workers in the United States are at risk of developing lung disease (Farmer’s Lung) resulting from dust exposure. Eighty-five percent of agricultural worksites are exempt from workplace safety standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA); they are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.

The mandate of the AgFF Program is to reduce work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths in the United States among workers in the agriculture, forestry and commercial fishing industries. In 2012, nearly $22 million was distributed among the regional centers. The AgFF Program has seen an overall reduction in injuries and deaths in agriculture, forestry and fishing since its inception in 1990. Deaths have decreased 40%, from 931 in 1992 to 557 in 2011.

Dairy farming is among the most dangerous occupations and accounts for a disproportionately large percentage of all injuries in livestock-related agriculture. Dairy production in the US has steadily moved toward a large-herd, high-efficiency model due to associated economies of scale. Between 2005 and 2009, farms with 1,000 or more cows increased 20 percent. The growing changes in dairy farming have been matched by a growing workforce of unskilled labor. HICAHS has been at the forefront of ‘research to practice’ efforts to reduce risk of injury and fatality on site and is the first to research musculoskeletal disorders among large-herd dairy workers. HICAHS’ current intervention practices in partnership with agribusiness have tremendous implications for farmworkers and the dairy industry in the United States.

“The NIOSH Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program is the most significant federal initiative today to seek to secure a safe workplace for agricultural workers,” says Paul Gunderson, Ph.D., director of the Dakota Precision Agriculture Center and lead reviewer. “Our evaluation panel found that the program conducts high priority, sound research.”

Life-saving programs cited by the NIOSH review committee include:

· Reduction of child deaths and injuries on U.S. farms. More than 1 million young people (under age 20) work on U.S. farms and ranches. More than half perform farm work or chores. Research conducted and interventions implemented by the National Center for Children’s Farm Safety and Health, an AgFF Center, as well as other private and public organizations resulted in a 59% decrease in the rate of childhood agricultural injuries between 1998 and 2008.

· AgFF research has shown that the use of tractor rollbar protective structures (ROPS) and seatbelts can prevent 99% of overturn deaths. Its New York program has increased the installation of ROPS by 10-fold and recorded more than 100 overturns and accidents with no injuries among farmers who installed ROPS.

· In 2011, the NIOSH AgFF Program was named one of the “Ten Great Public Health Achievements” for 2001-2010 by the CDC in part because of the drastic reduction in deaths for Bering Sea crab fisherman, 770 deaths per 100,000 workers to 260 deaths.