Farmwork involves a variety of demanding duties. Like the fruits and veggies sown, sustained, and harvested in the field, the raising, tending, and cultivation of livestock and poultry is performed by vulnerable farmworkers.
In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 256,100 workers are employed on farms, ranches, and aquaculture facilities. Forty percent are foreign born, 22% are female, and 40% lack a high school degree according to 2017 U.S. Census data. These farmworkers perform routine tasks related to handling and processing our steady supply of meat, dairy, fish, and egg products. They provide the day-to-day care for poultry, swine, fish, and cattle, including raising, feeding, moving, loading, grooming, cleaning, herding, and slaughtering them.
The unpredictable behavior of these animals compounded by their (understandably) skittish nature constitutes many safety and health hazards endemic to animal agriculture. In addition to musculoskeletal injuries, animal handlers are at risk of contracting numerous zoonotic illnesses that have serious long-term implications. In 2009, animals were responsible for 21% of all work-related injuries to adults on farms, according to the USDA.
More and more commercial farming operations have opted for the efficiency of feedlots and confinement buildings. In fact, 99% of animals bred for consumption in the United States are raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The animal waste, food waste, respirations, dust, and chemicals of these facilities creates a toxic atmosphere of ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, pesticides, and carbon dioxide. This dust never settles and is always in the air because of the constant movement of the animals. It is ever present. Though the Environmental Protection Agency recognizes manure as a substance that “can pose substantial risks to the environment and public health if managed improperly,” it still poses a serious public and occupational health hazard.
Poultry farm workers handle domestic fowl designated for eggs and meat. Despite their small size (10 pounds for chickens, max 40 pounds or turkeys), poultry present numerous threats to workers’ health and safety. For example, poultry processing workers are susceptible to poultry borne viruses and dermatological ailments, including inflammatory conditions and fungal infections due to breathing in concentrated amounts of contaminated dust. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a study that found, “poultry workers are 32 times more likely to carry E. coli bacteria resistant to the commonly used antibiotic, gentamicin, than others outside the poultry industry.”
The International Labour Organization summarizes the many health hazards poultry workers often face:
- infectious diseases that are common to both fowl and man;
- agricultural dust and toxic gases;
- chemicals used at poultry farms (for disinfection, etc.);
- The physically challenging work of handling heavy loads, uncomfortable postures and movements that cause trauma (including falls) and musculoskeletal injuries to back, arms, and hands.
The United States is the world’s largest producer of beef. As of 2019, there were over 33 million heifers, steer, and bulls that were at least 500 pounds according to the USDA cattle inventory. It is critical to understand cattle behavior and characteristics in order to prevent serious injury when working with these large animals.
Cattle are highly sensitive to light, sound, smell. They are easily startled herd animals; a shadow or rattling chain is enough to trigger a frenzy of fear and panic. Their eyes are positioned for panoramic vision with blind spots directly behind and immediately in front of their nose.
Tips for handling cattle:
- Avoid loud sounds and sudden movements – no shouting or yelling; walk, don’t run
- Avoid exposing cattle to sharp contrasts in light – limited vision
- Do not stand directly behind cattle
- Maintain a calm and steady composure
Cattle account for more fatal work injuries than any other animal, comprising two-fifths of the 375 worker fatalities associated with animals, and nearly half of the 303 fatalities associated with mammals. Fortunately, recognizing and utilizing a few basic livestock handling principles can help prevent injury and illness when working with these animals.
AFOP Health & Safety provides education & training resources for farmworkers on pesticide safety, tractor safety, and heat stress. Visit our page to learn more about these and other critical services that we offer through the National Farmworker Training Program. See also our special events coming up this year when there will be additional opportunities to engage and advocate for farmworkers.
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