Farm work ranks as one of the most hazardous occupations in the U.S., and yet farmworkers are the least protected workforce in our nation. Farmworkers have very few federal workplace safety protections in comparison to other occupations, but they are exposed to a multitude of environmental hazards that are potentially harmful to their health and well-being.
Agricultural work is physically demanding; therefore, the risk of accidents is increased by fatigue, poorly designed tools, difficult terrain, exposure to extreme weather conditions, and poor general health associated with working and living in remote communities. These problems are compounded by the fact that working and living conditions are often intimately linked.
Farmers and farmworkers suffer disproportionately from respiratory diseases, hearing loss due to deafening noise, skin conditions, a variety of cancers, ergonomic problems, chemical toxicity, and heat-related illnesses. Even if they can’t be eliminated entirely, there are precautions that can be taken to minimize or eliminate these potential hazards.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that farmworkers suffer as many as 300,000 acute illnesses and injuries from pesticide exposure each year. More than 4,800 deaths are reported annually in the workplace, from which 570 are in the agriculture sector.
What is the leading cause of death for farmworkers?
Tractor rollover – which is why AFOP Health & Safety imparts tractor safety training to the agriculture community. Daily, about 243 agricultural workers suffer a serious injury which causes time off work. Five percent of these injuries result in permanent impairment.
Other serious safety and health hazards farmworkers face are:
- Lack of adequate drinking water and restrooms
- Musculoskeletal injuries from stooping, lifting, and cutting
- Farm machinery and equipment like tractors, ladders and sharp tools
- Exposure to pesticides
- Extreme weather
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) most recent figures, there were 4,821 fatal occupational injuries in 2014 (the latest figures available), 239 (5%) more than reported in 2013. The majority of these injuries occur in a handful of sectors representing the most dangerous ways to earn a living in the country. Despite the danger involved in the farm work occupation, their annual compensation does not balance the associated risks. BLS estimates that the median pay of a farmworker is $22,540 annually.
Of course, some agricultural employers pay a fair wage to their employees. Too many, however, still do not.
Stronger laws and genuine enforcement are needed. This includes addressing the problem of lack of inspectors in the agriculture sector. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) summarized farmworker labor law exclusion, noting the following:
- In many states, it is not required that farmworkers have workers’ compensation or overtime pay
- On smaller farms and in short harvest seasons, farmworkers are not entitled to federal minimum wage ($5.85 per hour).
- Child labor laws are riddled with exemptions in agriculture, like that children may perform farm work as young as 10 years of age (16 is the minimum age for most non-agricultural jobs)
- In some states, farmworker children are exempt from the state’s compulsory education laws.
- Many state health and safety laws exclude farmworkers.
- Farmworkers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act and thus have no standardized union protection against unfair labor practices – except in the handful of states that have chosen to enact NRLA-type protections to them
Despite the injustices, farmworkers often don’t complain about violations due to of fear of employer retaliation. When limited legal protection and fear of punishment is coupled with the natural hazards of the fields, preventable workplace injuries and illnesses are too common for comfort. Through AFOP Health & Safety Programs trainers, we educate workers on how to file complaints anonymously in hopes that workers can fight the fear and raise their voice.
We all eat; therefore, we all need the farmworker community. We need to be more appreciative of the intense labor and sacrifices agricultural workers make. We need to start safeguarding their health and safety. We need to empower the farmworker community, and start respecting our nation’s farmworkers as equals.