Agriculture is among the most hazardous occupations. It is, perhaps, the only industry where eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds work in the same profession, side by side, operating large pieces of equipment. The death rate is four times that of all other industries combined. In 1993 there were 2,400 deaths, or 51 deaths per 100,000 farm residents. Typically, farm injuries are underreported. Farm vehicles account for half of the fatal farm injuries, the majority due to tractor accidents. Other problems include accidental amputation, hearing loss, respiratory diseases (including organic dust toxic syndrome, or ODTS), and higher incidences of some forms of cancer in the farm population. Farmers also suffer from high levels of stress. Farm work is difficult and demanding, and poor prices, weather conditions, and unstable markets all contribute to the stress level.
In 1991, 923,000 children under the age of 15 and 346,000 adolescents 15 to 19 years of age resided on U.S. farms and ranches. National Agricultural Worker's Survey data indicates that about 128,000 farmworkers between 14 and 17 years of age worked in crop production from 1993 to 1996, making up about 7 percent of all hired farmworkers.
It is estimated that 300 children younger than twenty years of age die of agricultural injuries on U.S. farms annually. This is a tragic statistic that is unique to agriculture. Approximately 32,800 agricultural-related injuries occurred among children and adolescents under the age of twenty who lived on, worked on, or visited a farm operation in 1998. The injuries occurred at a rate of 1.7 per every 100 farms. About 44 percent of the injuries that occurred to children were classified as work-related. Males are about four times more likely to suffer an injury than females. The most common types of nonfatal injuries include contusions, abrasions, and lacerations. Operating farm machinery, including vehicles, is the leading cause of farm deaths, and drowning is the second leading cause of death on farms.
There are an estimated 3 million to 4 million seasonal and migrant workers in the United States, and 85 percent of all migrant workers are members of racial or ethnic minorities. Many of these workers are poorly paid and have very poor working conditions. Little data is available regarding their health status. The National Center for Farmworker Health estimates that the majority of farmworkers earn annual wages of less than $7,500.
In the past, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service played a significant role in training farmers and their families about the risks associated with farming. These traditional programs were greatly enhanced with the establishment, in 1990, of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Agricultural Centers to conduct research, education, and prevention projects to address the nation's pressing agricultural health and safety problems. The centers are geographically distributed throughout the United States. Additionally, private organizations and farmer organizations have recognized the importance of injury-prevention programs.
MARK G. ROBSON