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October 23, 2014
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community living

Profile of farming-related injuries and illnesses

By James D. Lomax, MD

Much of our area’s economy depends on farming and raising poultry, pigs and beef. It is important to point out that this profession has its share of hazards either from injuries, or illnesses from infectious agents and chemical exposure, especially pesticides. This article will highlight the more common problems seen by our local healthcare providers.

Safety Issues

Agriculture is rated as one of the most hazardous professions in the U.S. due a very high risk of fatal and non-fatal injuries. It is also unique in that family members, who work and live on the premises, are at high risk for accidents, too.

Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that as of 2010 there were approximately 1,823,000 full-time workers employed in agriculture in the U.S. Of these there were an estimated 1.03 million youth under 20 years of age residing on farms, with about 519,000 youth performing farm work.

The number of fatalities reported in 2010 were 476 farmers and farm workers who died from a work-related injuries. Tractors overturning were the leading cause of death. Annually there are about 113 youth under 20 years of age dying from farm-related injuries, with most of these deaths occurring in the group of 16 to 19 year olds. For minors, the leading causes of fatal injuries were from motor vehicles (including ATVs) and 16% from drowning.

Nonfatal injuries occur at a rate of 243 agricultural workers per day suffering an injury serious enough to require time away from work, with 5% of these injuries resulting in permanent impairment. In 2009, there were approximately 16,100 youth injured on farms, with 3,400 of these injuries directly due to farm work. These numbers may seem small, but the number of people employed in this sector has decreased significantly over the past decades and any change in injury rates has an important impact on the industry as a whole.

Pesticide exposure

When used properly, pesticides offer a variety of benefits to society. They increase crop production, preserve produce, combat insect infestations and control exotic species. However, pesticides also have the potential for causing harm. There are over 20,000 pesticide products marketed in the U.S with 1.1 billion pounds used annually. The EPA estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur each year. Agricultural workers, groundskeepers, pet groomers, fumigators and a variety of other occupations are at risk for exposure to pesticides including fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides and sanitizers, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Most agricultural workers do not directly handle these chemicals but can become ill due to exposure from off-target pesticide airborne drift, early re-entry into pesticide-treated areas, or being present in the treated area at the time of the pesticide application.

Exposures to pesticides may cause short- and long-term health effects. Signs of acute poisoning may include diarrhea, pinpoint pupils, rashes, nausea, headache and vomiting. Some pesticides may cause eye, skin, or throat irritation. Chronic exposure (greater than one year) to some types of pesticides can aggravate asthma symptoms and increase the risk for impaired immunity, certain types of cancers and birth defects. Women exposed to pesticides are more than twice as likely to develop symptoms as men.

Infectious Diseases

Agricultural workers come in contact with a number of animal-associated infectious agents that can potentially cause human illness because of daily contact with manure and body fluids when an animal is slaughtered. For most of us, transmission of the diseases listed below are from eating undercooked, contaminated food or drinking unpasteurized milk of infected animals.

Campylobacter is the most common bacterial cause of gastroenteritis worldwide and is prevalent in food animals such as cattle, pigs, and sheep.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) causes an estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 60+ deaths in the U.S. annually. While most illness has been associated with eating undercooked and contaminated ground beef, it also can be passed in the manure of young calves and other cattle.

Salmonellosis is a bacterial gastrointestinal disease. Usually, people get salmonellosis by eating contaminated food, such as undercooked chicken or eggs. However, farm animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs and goats can carry salmonella and pass it in their feces.

Anthrax: Farmers are familiar with this spore because of its potential to infect cattle, sheep and goats. It can cause potentially fatal disease if spores are inhaled, but generally it causes localized skin infections. Anthrax spores can survive in soil for years.

Cryptosporidium is one of the most common causes of waterborne diseases, resulting in diarrhea in humans and animals in the United States.

Brucellosis: While brucellosis can affect a wide variety of domestic animals including cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, horses and dogs, human transmission has been reduced significantly due to effective prevention programs nationwide.

Giardiasis lamblia, often referred to simply as giardia, is the most common parasitic disease and infects 2% of all adults worldwide. The incidence increases in late summer. Giardia is present in soil, food and water that have been contaminated by infected feces.

Leptospirosis; This bacterial disease can occur in a large number of animals including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and dogs. Infected animals may show no signs of illness, although the most common sign in cattle are spontaneous abortions or weak newborn calves. The bacteria are spread through the urine and can then survive in the water and soil for months.

Following best management practices on the farm is key to preventing many health problems not only for farmers, their families and their animals, but also for consumers of farm products.