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Risky business: health hazards abound for farmers

An increased risk of respiratory disease and a farm fatality
rate significantly higher than general industry are just two of the problems
faced by farmers and farm workers today. These and other topics have been addressed
in a three-year agricultural health and safety study coordinated at the
University of Illinois.

Chip Petrea, a U of I Extension safety specialist who
coordinated the project, says the study showed some of the more pressing health
and safety issues faced by the ag community. Following is a list of some of the
greater risks:

Dangerous tasks. The fatality rate per 100,000 workers in ag
production is 25.8, compared to an all-industry fatality rate of 5.0 - making
it more than five times as high.

Exposure to organic dust and toxic gases. This increases the
risk of acute and chronic respiratory disease.

Exposure to dangerous compounds. Exposure to certain
pesticide-related compounds is thought to be associated with several cancers,
particularly among those with the most direct exposures, such as farmworkers
and pesticide mixers.

Disabling diseases, injuries. These are often due to
age-related disease (which has increased with the mean age) and an increase in
the number of farm operators with physical disabilities. Spinal cord injuries
and amputations are the most frequently occurring disabling conditions.

Lack of medical services in rural areas. The study findings
reinforced that the agricultural community is primarily 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 for all rural residents,
especially those whose principal language is other than English.

High cost of medical services and the lack of availability
of health insurance.

Petrea is putting together recommendations for action, based
on his findings. Specifically, he will be seeking funding for research and
programming for populations at risk; targeting and taking action on unique
issues associated with the living and working environment of migrant and
seasonal farmworkers; investigating the distinctive, yet common, exposures
found in the agricultural environment; funding a collaborative effort between
professionals working in agricultural safety and health and professionals
working in primary health care; addressing the shortcomings of health services
availability and delivery in rural areas.

The study also had some interesting findings about the
shifting demographics of rural populations. Sixty-one percent of farmers are
age 55 or older and only 8% are 35 or younger. Women now make up 23.1% of farm
operators and managers and 19% of farm workers are female. Full-time workers employed
in production ag have fallen below 2 million for the first time, Petrea said.

The study was funded by more than a dozen organizations in
the agricultural community, including Pioneer Hi-Bred International, U of I
Extension, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Farm
Foundation.

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