Agriculture has long ranked in the Top 10, and often within the Top 5, most dangerous occupations. Now, there's more evidence to support those standings.

A University of Illinois study found that farmers and farm workers have a "significantly higher" risk of respiratory disease and accidental fatality rate than general industry. The three-year agricultural health and safety study looked at a variety of related issues.

Chip Petrea, an Illinois Extension safety specialist who coordinated the project, says data available from the study reveals some of the more pressing health and safety issues that the ag community is facing. 

These include:

  • A high fatality rate. The fatality rate per 100,000 workers in ag production is 25.8, compared to an all-industry fatality rate of 5– more than five times as high.
  • Exposure to organic dust and toxic gases, which increases the risk of acute and chronic respiratory diseases.
  • Exposure to pesticide-related compounds thought to be associated with some health impact, and possibly even cancer. Farmworkers and pesticide mixers are most at risk.
  • Physical disabilities have increased. Spinal cord injuries and amputations are the most frequently occurring disablities, but this also increases with age-related degradation.
  • Lack of medical services in rural areas. The study reinforces the fact that the ag community is dependent on emergency medical service departments made up of unpaid volunteers. What's more, local medical services (physicians, emergency rooms, clinics, ambulances and/or emergency medical technicians) are increasingly scarce in rural America, but especially for those who do not speak English.
  • High cost of medical services and the lack of available health insurance.

The face of agricultural production also is changing, adds Petrea.

Sixty-one percent of farmers are age 55 or older, only 8 percent are 35 or younger. Women now make up 23.1 percent of farm operators and managers, and 19 percent of farm workers are female.

Full-time workers employed in production ag have dropped below 2 million for the first time, Petrea notes. As the number of non-paid ag workers (usually family members) decreases, the number of hired farm workers increases. Those workers are often young males whose primary language is not English.

These findings and more will be summarized in a document, which also will make recommendations for future industry priorities, funding, education, social efforts and much more. "We have a continuing need in agricultural safety and health," says Petrea, "and this document suggests specific areas where that need can be addressed."

The study was funded by more than a dozen ag-based organizations, including Pioneer Hi-Bred International, University of Illinois Extension, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Farm Foundation.