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Work health and safety of Australian farm workers

24 April 2018

The occupational health and safety of farm workers is a major concern in Australia. The combination of work health and safety hazards and the context in which farm work is carried out makes farm work one of the most dangerous occupations in Australia .

In 2016, Australian agriculture represented less than 3 per cent of our national workforce, but accounted for 21 per cent of work-related deaths . The number of work-related deaths in Australia continues to drop each year. Between 2003 and 2014, work-related deaths for all industries fell by 41 per; however, the fatality rate for agricultural workers fell by only 24 per cent .

In this article, we take a look at some of the hazards of farming and associated effects on the health, wellbeing and safety of Australian farm workers.

Farms as workplaces

Farms are unique. From an occupational health and safety perspective, the combination of hazards and the context in which farm work is carried out makes it one of the most dangerous industries in which to work.

Hazards common to most farms include:
• animals – injuries inflicted by animals and transmission of infectious disease
• chemicals – burns, poisoning, respiratory illness
• confined spaces – poisoning or suffocation
• electrical hazards
• heights
• machinery
• noise pollution – livestock, machinery, firearms
• vehicles – crashes, falls, other accidents
• water – drowning, habitats of vectors of disease
• weather – sun exposure, floods, bushfires.

The dangers faced by farmers are further compounded by the remote and isolated settings in which farm work is often carried out. Farmers often work alone and at a distance from any help or first aid. If a farmer is injured, often no one is nearby to offer immediate help, as was the case in west Gippsland in December, when a farmer was forced to ride 500 metres to get help after falling from his motorbike and breaking his neck.

Agriculture has the highest proportion of self-employed workers of any industry. Self-employed farmers face the stresses of running a business as well as undertaking physically demanding work. The agricultural industry also has the highest proportion of older workers than any other industry, with 16 per cent of workers aged 65 years and older. Age increases the risk of serious injury or fatality.

Work-related injuries and fatalities

Agriculture has the highest fatality rate of any Australian industry. Based on data from 2005–14, it has been estimated that 41 people are killed each year in the agricultural industry, with 85 per cent of these deaths occurring on farms.
Agricultural vehicles, such as tractors, quad bikes and other machinery, are the leading causes of death (75 per cent of workplace deaths). Other common causes of worker fatality include being struck by an animal, falling from a horse and accidental shooting. Farm dams and other bodies of water continue to be single largest cause of child deaths.

Farmers and farm workers are also at increased risk of sustaining serious work-related injuries. Data from the period 2004–05 to 2013–14 indicate an average of 2980 serious claims in the agriculture industry per year.

The most common types of injuries sustained on farms are:
• traumatic joint/ligament and muscle/tendon injuries
• wounds, lacerations, amputations and internal organ damage
• fractures.

Hospitalisation data from July 2006 to June 2009 indicate that farms are among the most common places of occurrence for incidents that lead to a work-related hospitalisation. Over the three-year period there were 6400 work-related hospitalisations, where the industry sector of the worker was recorded as Agriculture, forestry and fishing.
Thirty-eight per cent of hospitalisations were the result of exposure to inanimate mechanical forces – a broad category that includes contact with machinery and being caught, crushed, jammed or pinched in or between other objects. Transport accidents accounted for 21 per cent of hospitalisations, and handling livestock accounted for 13 per cent of hospitalisations.

There is no single database that holds all the information necessary to accurately describe the true extent to which farmers and farm workers sustain serious injury – these data are likely to understate the number of serious injuries sustained by farmers and farm workers.

Work-related diseases

Work-related diseases are acute, recurring or chronic health problems caused by work conditions or practices. Due to the hazardous environment of farming, workers are at increased risk of developing a number of diseases. Less is known about the extent to which work-related diseases affect Australian farmers due to a lack of accurate data.

Skin cancer

Sun exposure is the cause of most skin cancers in Australia. Farmers and farm workers spend much of their time working outdoors and, if they do so without appropriate sun protection, are at increased risk of skin cancer. A 2015 review of skin protection behaviours in farm men and women found that a large group of farmers used limited or no skin protection, despite increased knowledge.

Noise-induced hearing loss

Noise-induced hearing loss is a significant problem in the Australian farming community. Workers and those who live on farms are frequently exposed to noise pollution, including from tractors, workshop tools, livestock, heavy machinery and firearms. Data from an on-farm noise audit suggests that 51 per cent of farm workers are regularly exposed to daily noise above the accepted Australian Exposure Standard. Two out of three farmers have measurable hearing loss. Hearing loss sustained from noise injury can have disabling personal and social consequences, and places farmers at risk of sustaining injuries.

Mental illness

A major concern regarding the health and wellbeing of farming communities is the increased risk of suicide and stigma associated with it. Farming is a physically and psychologically demanding occupation. In recent decades, farmers have faced periods of extreme uncertainty and stress due to extreme weather and a decline in the Australian economy’s reliance on agriculture. Elevated suicide rates among agricultural workers have been reported in Queensland. In Victoria, farming suicides accounted for just over 3 per cent of all suicides in the state.

Cardiovascular diseases

Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) include all diseases and conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. Australian farmers have been identified as a particularly high-risk group. Data from a cross-sectional study of nearly 2000 farmers across Australia found that the cohort exhibited an increased prevalence of CVD risk factors and comorbidities, including higher rates of obesity, hypertension and diabetes risk, compared with the general population.
The potential for poor outcomes may be exacerbated by a lack of knowledge of appropriate health behaviours. A pilot study conducted in rural Victoria found that farm men and women were unsure of what to do when experiencing chest pain, subsequently placing themselves at risk of dying.

Exposure to pesticides

Pesticides are chemicals commonly used by farmers to control pests and to regulate plant growth. On the basis of deaths or acute poisoning, exposure to pesticides does not rank highly as a priority for farm-injury prevention. However, widespread concern is growing over the potential effects of regular or long-term exposure.
Pesticides, such as organophosphates, have been associated with adverse neurological effects. A retrospective cohort study found long-term exposure to organophosphates was associated with an increased likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease. In 2016, a cluster of cases was identified in a Victorian farming region, where pesticides are commonly used. Four neighbouring areas were found to have unusually high prevalence of Parkinson’s disease.

In a pioneering study, the National Centre for Farmer Health (NCFH) tested a group of farmers once a month over a 12-month period for levels of cholinesterase enzymes – enzymes that are needed for proper functioning of the nervous system. Preliminary results found these enzymes were lower in farmers who had high exposure to organophosphate pesticides.

A focus on farmer health

In September, Western Alliance’s Fifth Annual Symposium will highlight efforts to improve and promote health and wellbeing in western Victoria through evidence-based interventions and research. This year, Western Alliance is collaborating with the NCFH, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary with a conference to be held in conjunction with the Symposium.
Abstracts to both events are invited from researchers, health professionals, rural professionals and associates from all disciplines and sectors, with a focus on rural, regional and farmer health. The call for abstracts is now OPEN and will close midnight on 31 May.

Acknowledgements: The National Centre for Farmer Health (NCFH) is a partnership between Western District Health Service and Deakin University, providing national leadership to improve the health, wellbeing and safety of farm men and women, farm workers, their families and communities across Australia.

  • About the author: Emma West
  • Emma West is the Project Officer – Research Support for Western Alliance.

If you would like to write an article for our Talking Points newsletter or In Brief blog, email Cassandra Hamilton (cassandrahamilton@westernalliance.org.au) or call 03 4215 2900.