Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing
Burden, Need and Impact
Several factors contribute to the high fatal and non-fatal injury rates among workers in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sector, compared with other industrial sectors. Work in these industries occurs mainly outdoors in harsh conditions, and often in remote, rural, and removed areas. Low profit margins and the seasonal nature of the work make these highly competitive, seasonally-intensive, and economically-risky industries. The work is physical and requires dangerous equipment, heavy machinery, and chemicals, among other risky conditions.
Data about work-related illnesses in AgFF are not as complete and reliable as for injuries. Chemical exposures, the fast pace of seasonal work, exposure to the elements, and repetitive motions in poor posture conditions are just a few of the factors that contribute to high levels of work-related illnesses. Work-related illnesses are most likely underreported because there may be a latency between exposure and illness and there may be multiple potential causes of an illness. It can therefore be difficult to accurately quantify exposure and attribute the illness to work-related exposures. Some of the common work-related illnesses among workers in these industries are acute and chronic pesticide poisoning, musculoskeletal disorders, heat and cold stress, and emotional stress.
Data related to some of these health outcomes may be available in the NIOSH Worker Health Charts (WHC). WHC is a web application that uses data from various sources to visualize worker health data that may be difficult to find or not charted elsewhere. Note that some industries may not be represented in this tool due to small sample size.
NIOSH strives to maximize its impact in occupational safety and health. The Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing (AgFF) Program identifies priorities to guide investments, and bases those priorities on the evidence of burden, need and impact. Below are the priority areas for the AgFF Program.
Between 2007 and 2011, 2,606 cases of acute occupational pesticide-related illness were identified by the eleven states participating at that time in the NIOSH Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risks (SENSOR)-Pesticides program. Workers in agriculture suffered from these illnesses at a rate 37 times that of workers in non-agricultural industries (18.6 per 100,000 full-time workers vs. 0.5 per 100,000 full-time workers, respectively).1 Those numbers do not include any of the chronic or long-term illnesses that have been associated with exposure to certain pesticides in some studies such as cancers, neurological problems, asthma, immune problems, and birth defects.
Ongoing and additional research is needed to further confirm these associations and to understand the biological mechanisms of action. Currently, there is no central national pesticide poisoning surveillance system in the United States. Therefore, acute occupational pesticide-related illness and injury surveillance through the SENSOR-Pesticide program is essential to protect workers by determining the magnitude and underlying causes of over-exposure to pesticides in the workplace. NIOSH works closely with the 13 currently-participating states to build and maintain their capacity for surveillance of work-related injury and illness, and uses the SENSOR-collected data to detect and respond to national trends. To improve surveillance efforts, better biomarkers and diagnostic tools to confirm cases of acute pesticide poisoning need to be developed and applied. More research to describe and characterize potential health effects of chronic pesticide exposure at different levels, including low levels, is also needed. Intervention and translation research is needed to develop, evaluate, and promote the implementation of evidence-based intervention, technology, and best practices to reduce or prevent pesticide exposure.
Data from the NIOSH SENSOR-pesticide study has informed policy change. For example, in 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used SENSOR findings on the causes of poisonings to inform the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard’sexternal icon new standards and estimate the revised rule’s benefits. These robust changes have potential to reduce handler and farmworker pesticide exposure, especially among young workers.
Data from the SENSOR-pesticides program also contributed to the development and passage of legislation enacted in North Carolina in 2008 that resulted in funding to strengthen surveillance, improve the quality of pesticide compliance inspections, and increase and improve pesticide safety training.2 Ongoing NIOSH-funded research through the Centers for Agricultural Safety and Health to develop improved tools for detection of certain pesticides, design and/or evaluate interventions and strategies to reduce or prevent pesticide exposure have potential for impact.
1 Calvert GM, Beckman J, Prado JB, et al. Acute Occupational Pesticide-Related Illness and Injury —United States, 2007–2011. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2016;63:11–16. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6355a3.
2 Calvert GM, Higgins, SA . Using surveillance data to promote occupational health and safety policies and practice at the state level: A case study. Am J Ind Med 53(2):188-193
Workers in the AgFF sector experience higher fatal injury rates than workers in any other industry sector, at 23.4 injuries per 100,000 workers (compared to 3.5 injuries per 100,000 workers in all industries). Logging workers and fishers had the two most dangerous civilian occupations in the U.S. in 2018, with fatal occupational injury rates of 97.6 and 77.4 injuries per 100,000 workers respectively. Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers also made the top 10 most dangerous civilian occupations, with a rate of 24.7 fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 workers.1 Workers in the seafood processing industry (classified as food manufacturing workers but included in NIOSH’s AgFF Program) experience high rates of non-fatal occupational injury and illness, with 6 cases per 100 workers in 2018 compared with an overall rate in private industry of 3.1 per 100 workers.2
The few occupational safety and health studies conducted in U.S. with seafood processing workers have identified traumatic injuries as an area of concern.3-6 For example, a study of occupational safety onboard processing vessels operating in Alaskan waters during 2001–2012 found that the two most frequent causes of injuries were workers being caught in running equipment and cut by slipping knives.5 The excessive risk for fatal work injuries in logging and forestry points to a need for prioritizing research and intervention programs to make this industry less hazardous.
Data for agriculture and fishing workers more clearly establish traumatic injuries as main causes of occupational injury and death in those industries. For workers in agriculture, farm machinery is the leading source of fatalities among both adults and youth; machinery (particularly tractors) and livestock handling are the leading causes of non-fatal injuries among adults.7-10 Machinery accounts for 23–50% of fatalities and approximately 50% of hospitalizations from non-fatal injuries.11 Falls and motor vehicle incidents were the leading causes of non-fatal agriculture-related injuries among youth.12
NIOSH maintains the Commercial Fishing Incident Database, a surveillance system for workplace fatalities and vessel disasters in the U.S. commercial fishing industry. A review of database data13 from 2000 through 2015 found that nearly half of work-related deaths in the fishing industry occurred after vessel disasters (49%; e.g., sinking, capsizing), and another 30% resulted from falls overboard.
Rapid growth in the use of robotics and other emerging harvesting technologies are likely to present new risks or exacerbate existing risks due to lack of experience with these new technologies in varied work settings in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector. There is an urgent need to expand U.S. occupational injury surveillance capabilities to better identify, monitor, and quantify the burden of fatal and non-fatal incidents involving robots and other emerging technologies (e.g., development of new source or event codes). Systematic studies are needed to characterize the impacts of personal, environmental, and task-related risk factors on worker injuries, and to develop, test, and translate evidence-based interventions.
The NIOSH Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies is the primary source for research to inform policies and interventions related to improving worker safety in the U.S. commercial fishing industry. The program identifies fishery specific hazards and works with industry, non-governmental, and government partners to develop evidence-based engineering, administrative, and behavioral interventions and inform safety policies to prevent fatalities in specific fisheries. Transfer of the results of the program’s epidemiologic and engineering research through health communication tools, publications and media is essential.
Surveillance in the forestry sector is challenging, and there is currently a gap in safety and health research for forestry workers. Immediate research needs include basic research to characterize safety hazards among forestry workers, particularly related to emerging technologies, and to develop direct reading methods and sensors to prevent machine-related injuries. NIOSH is expanding its coordinated extramural research program to supplement gaps in knowledge about work-related injuries and illnesses among forestry workers, and to develop and test evidence-based interventions and technologies to reduce fatal and non-fatal injuries.
The National ROPS (Roll-Over Protective Structure) Rebate Programexternal icon was launched in June 2017, scaling the implementation of more than a decade of NIOSH- and NIOSH-funded research efforts. The NIOSH funded Southeast Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention Center is also working to promote tractor and other farm machinery safety in the Appalachian and Mississippi Delta regions of the US by training teachers in high school agricultural education programs in 9 states to integrate agriculture safety and health into their curriculum. The integrated safety curriculum, among other skills, directly addresses the risk of tractor overturns by teaching students to build and install Cost-Effective Roll-Over Protective Structures (CROPS) on tractors in their communities using NIOSH-developed engineering plans. The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety is actively disseminating Agricultural Youth Work Guidelinesexternal icon to help owners, supervisors, and parents make decisions about which tasks are age- and developmentally-appropriate for children living and working on farms and ranches.
The NIOSH Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies with its partners has created several engineering solutions for various types of fishing vessels that have been licensed for commercialization. These include a hatch/door monitor and an emergency stop (E-stop) that can be retrofitted to any purse seine winch. Collaborative efforts to implement safety-related policies, encourage the use of personal flotation devices (PFDs), and engineer hazards out of equipment and processes are ongoing. For more specific examples of impact, please visit the NIOSH Commercial Fishing topic page.
NIOSH is working to rapidly expand its portfolio in forestry to conduct high-priority safety and health research, cultivate a cadre of occupational safety and health researchers who work closely with this industry, and develop effective solutions to pressing safety and health problems affecting forestry workers. Through research funded by NIOSH, for example, the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Centerexternal icon has introduced light-weight synthetic rope to replace heavy wire cables which can reduce the body burden for the aging logging workforce. Ongoing research projects aim to address a variety of issues, including improving communication systems, characterizing injuries and illnesses among populations of forestry workers, safety management training, and managing high-risk work tasks.
1BLS . Number and rate of fatal work injuries by industry sector, 2018 and Civilian occupations with high fatal work injury rates, 2018. In: Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, 2018. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/charts/census-of-fatal-occupational-injuries/number-and-rate-of-fatal-work-injuries-by-industry.htmexternal icon and https://www.bls.gov/charts/census-of-fatal-occupational-injuries/civilian-occupations-with-high-fatal-work-injury-rates.htm
2BLS . Table 1. Incidence rates of non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses by industry and case types, 2018. In: Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, 2018. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/osh/os/summ1_00_2018.htm
3Anderson N, Bonauto D, Adams D . Prioritizing Industries for Occupational Injury and Illness Prevention and Research, Washington State Workers’ Compensation Claims Data, 2002–2010. Olympia, WA: Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, Technical Report:64-61.
4Garcia GM and De Castro B . Working Conditions, Occupational Injuries, and Health Among Filipino Fish Processing Workers in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Workplace Health Saf 65(5):219-226.
5Lucas DL, Kincl LD, Bovbjerg VE, Lincoln JM, Branscum AJ . Work‐related traumatic injuries onboard freezer‐trawlers and freezer‐longliners operating in Alaskan waters during 2001–2012. Am J Ind Med 57(7):826-836.
6Syron LN, Kincl L, Yang L, Cain DT, Smit E . Analysis of workers’ compensation disabling claims in Oregon’s seafood preparation and packaging industry, 2007‐2013. Am J Ind Med 60(5):484-493.
7NIOSH . Workplace safety and health topics: Agriculture. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/aginjury/default.html
8Browning SR, Westneat SC, Sanderson WT, Reed DB . Cattle-related injuries and farm management practices on Kentucky beef cattle farms. J Agric Saf Health 19(1):37-49.
9Erkal S, Gerberich SG, Ryan AD, Renier CM, Alexander BH . Animal-related injuries: a population-based study of a five-state region in the upper Midwest: Regional Rural Injury Study II. J Safety Res 39(4):351-363.
10Swanton AR, Young TL, Leinenkugel K, Torner JC, Peek-Asa C . Nonfatal tractor-related injuries presenting to a state trauma system. J Safety Res 53:97-102.
11Jawa RS, Young DH, Stothert JC, Yetter D, Dumond R, Shostrom VK, Cemaj S, Rautiainen RH, Mercer DW . Farm machinery injuries: The 15-year experience at an urban joint trauma center system in a rural state. J Agromedicine 18(2):98-106.
12Zaloshnja E, Miller TR, Lawrence B. . Incidence and Cost of Injury Among Youth in Agricultural Settings, United States, 2001–2006 Pediatrics Apr, 129(4) 728-734; DOI:1542/peds.2011-2512.
13NIOSH . Commercial Fishing Incident Database. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fishing/nationaloverview.html .
Many vulnerable workers are employed in these industries, and attention must be paid to disparities in exposures and outcomes among vulnerable worker groups. Women, foreign-born workers, children and young workers, and older workers make up large and increasing proportions of workers in these sectors. These groups of workers tend to have disparate rates of work-related injuries and illnesses as a result of physical, individual, social, and structural determinants of health, and therefore may require different approaches and more intensive attention to reduce disparities and prevent injuries and illnesses effectively.
For example, female agriculture workers are more likely than male workers to experience sexual assault at work in agriculture, and far more likely than women in the overall workforce.1 Older farmers have a higher rate of skin cancer, high blood pressure, and hearing problems when compared to older workers in the general population.2 From 2003 to 2010, among workers younger than 16 years, the number of worker fatalities in agriculture was consistently higher than in all non-agricultural industries combined.3 Youth agricultural deaths and injuries cost society an estimated $420 million and $1 billion per year respectively (in 2005 dollars).4
Most surveillance databases and data collection methods used to collect information on occupational illness and injuries do not have representative coverage of all workers, workplaces, and geographic areas. Databases and data collection methods can be improved to better identify and characterize vulnerable worker populations in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, and the safety and health risks and outcomes they experience. Research is also needed to develop and evaluate preventive intervention and training programs that are tailored to the unique needs of these populations.
The Centers for Agricultural Safety and Health and other grant and cooperative agreement efforts comprise a large portfolio of research focused on reducing disparities and inequities and keeping vulnerable agriculture, forestry, and fishing workers safe on the job. For example, the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safetyexternal icon, established in 1997, has become the leading program dedicated to childhood agricultural injury prevention in the U.S. and strives to respond to the needs of all children in agriculture and rural communities, including migrant, immigrant, seasonal workers; workers with language limitations; and Anabaptists, African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hmong populations. In addition to a large body of work related to children, several current projects conduct research, intervention, and prevention activities with foreign-born workers, workers with limited English proficiency, migrant workers, older workers, non-traditional farmers, and other populations at elevated risk in agriculture, forestry, and fishing.
1Kominers S . Working in fear sexual violence against women farmworkers in the United States: A literature review. Boston, MA: Oxfam America, https://www.oxfamamerica.org/publications/working-in-fear-sexual-violence-against-women-farmworkers-in-the-united-states-a-literature-review/external icon
2Hernandez-Peck C  Older farmers: Factors affecting their health and safety. Part of ASH-NET 2001. http://nasdonline.org/1816/d001760/older-farmers-factors-affecting-their-health-and-safety.html
3Wright S, Marlenga B, Lee BC [(2013]. Childhood agricultural injuries: An update for clinicians. Curr Probl Pediatr Adolesc HealthCare. 43(2):20-44.
4Zaloshnja E, Miller TR, Lawrence B. . Incidence and Cost of Injury Among Youth in Agricultural Settings, United States, 2001–2006 Pediatrics Apr, 129(4) 728-734; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-2512.
Contact with the outdoors and animals puts agriculture, forestry, and fishing workers at risk for vector-borne and zoonotic transmission of infectious diseases,1-4 such as Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, and influenza. Little information is available describing specific risk factors on the farm for developing a zoonotic disease and how frequently agricultural workers and their families get sick from food animals. Most new or emerging infectious diseases (3 out 4) are zoonotic, transmitted between animals and humans.5
Changes in environmental temperature are likely to expand both the geographic areas and seasons in which vectors may be endemic, which may increase the risk of vector-borne diseases.6 Heat and cold stress influence environmental exposures that would disproportionately affect workers in agriculture, forestry, and fishing.7 There is currently an epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) around the world, and workers with physically demanding jobs in outdoor environments, such as agriculture, seem to be the most affected.8 Currently it is unclear what causes CKDu, however heat stress and exposure to pesticides are thought to be possible contributors.8
More research is needed to understand the ways in which temperature changes in the working environment are likely to affect workers, which vectors and infectious agents are likely to become more common and in what geographic areas, and how these can be prevented. Additional research to identify the cause of CKDu and determine the magnitude of the burden among agriculture workers in the U.S., as well as coordination with partners to develop prevention strategies, are needed.
There is a great potential for impact from current NIOSH-funded research, especially in the areas of heat illness prevention, assessment of environmental exposures, and surveillance of zoonotic diseases in agriculture workers and veterinarians. The NIOSH-funded Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Centerexternal icon, for example, has integrated the One Health concept as a central element guiding its work. The Western Center for Agriculture Health and Safetyexternal icon, the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Centerexternal icon, and the Southeastern Coastal Center for Agricultural Health and Safetyexternal icon are heavily engaged in work to reduce heat stress and pesticide exposures.
1CDC . Zoonotic Diseases. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html
2Donham K, Thelin A . Zoonotic diseases: overview of occupational hazards in agriculture. In Donham K, Thelin A. Agricultural Medicine: Rural Occupational and Environmental Health, Safety, and Prevention, Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons Inc: Hoboken, NJ.
3NIOSH . Outdoor Workers. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/outdoor/
4Myers KP, Olsen CW, Setterquist SF, Capuano AW, Donham KJ, Thacker EL, Merchant JA, Gray GC. . Are Swine Workers in the United States at Increased Risk of Infection with Zoonotic Influenza Virus? Clin Infect Dis 42(1):14-20.
5MacMahon KL, Delaney LJ, Kullman G, Gibbins JD, Decker J, Kiefer MJ . Protecting poultry workers from exposure to avian influenza viruses. Public Health Rep 123(3):316-322.
6Beard CB, Eisen RJ, Barker CM, Garofalo JF, Hahn M, Hayden M, Monaghan AJ, Ogden NH, Schramm PJ [2016:] Ch. 5: Vectorborne Diseases. In: The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program. http://dx.doi.org/10.7930/J0765C7V
7Sarofim MC, Saha S, Hawkins MD, Mills DM, Hess J, Horton R, Kinney P, Schwartz J, St. Juliana A  Ch. 2: Temperature-Related Death and Illness. In: The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program, http://dx.doi.org/10.7930/J0MG7MDX
8Valcke M, Levasseur ME, da Silva AS, Wesseling C . Pesticide exposures and chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology: an epidemiologic review. Environ Health, 16(1), 49.
Annual prevalence of musculoskeletal symptoms has been estimated between 40% and 73% among U.S. agricultural workers.1-4 Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) may be of particular concern among dairy workers5 and aging workers. MSDs are common among workers in the fishing sub-sector as well.6
There is limited information on the prevalence of MSDs among forestry workers in the U.S. In a study of logging machine operators in the Southern U.S., 10.5% reported a MSD diagnosis, 74.3% reported at least mild back pain, and 71.7% reported at least mild neck pain over the past year.7
Given that little is known about the background and cause of MSDs among agriculture, commercial fishing, seafood processing, and forestry workers in the U.S., future research efforts should further characterize hazards in all three of these extremely labor-intensive sub-sectors. Effective methods for addressing MSD risk factors include reducing the weight of the load lifted through engineering or administrative controls and using ergonomic guidelines to design workstations and work tasks. Studies have shown that the incidence of work-related MSDs can be decreased when workers reduce task repetition and adopt a less extreme working posture. Furthermore, these modifications may improve symptoms in already affected dairy workers, manual harvesting workers, and fisherman.8
The NIOSH-funded Centers for Agricultural Safety and Health are working in regions across the country to better understand and reduce musculoskeletal disorders among workers in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, including evaluating labor-aid machines among crop workers in California, studying the magnitude and potential solutions for ergonomics among Maine logging workers and Northeast lobstermen, enhancing ergonomics for logging machine operators in Texas, and characterizing musculoskeletal exposures and high-risk work tasks among tree planters in the forest services sector in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
1Alterman T, Steege AL, Li J, Petersen MR, Muntaner C . Ethnic, racial, and gender variations in health among farm operators in the United States. Ann Epidemiol 18(3):179-186.
2Gomez MI, Hwang S, Stark AD, May JJ, Hallman EM, Pantea CI . An analysis of self-reported joint pain among New York farmers. J Agric Saf Health 9(2): 143-157.
3Rosecrance J, Rodgers G, Merlino L . Low back pain and musculoskeletal symptoms among Kansas farmers. Am J Ind Med 49(7):547-556.
4Villarejo D, McCurdy SA . The California agricultural workers health survey. J Agric Saf Health 14(2):135.
5Fethke NB, Merlino LA, Gerr F, Schall MC, Branch CA . Musculoskeletal pain among Midwest farmers and associations with agricultural activities. Am J Ind Med 58(3):319-330.
6Bloswick DS, Dzugan J . Ergonomics Training in the Commercial Fishing Industry: Emerging Issues and Gaps in Knowledge. J Agromed 19(2):87-89.
7Lynch SM, Smidt MF, Merrill PD, Sesek RF . Incidence of MSDs and neck and back pain among logging machine operators in the southern US. J Agric Saf Health 20(3):211-218.
8NIOSH . Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors: A Critical Review of Epidemiologic Evidence for Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Neck, Upper Extremity, and Low Back. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-141, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/97-141/default.html