Federal agencies responsible for tracking workplace hazards fail to report 77 percent of the injuries and illnesses of U.S. agricultural workers and farmers, new research from UC Davis has found. The lack of complete data greatly reduces the chances that safety and health risks for the nation’s food suppliers will be corrected.
Published in the April issue of the Annals of Epidemiology and led by J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences and researcher with the UC Davis Center for Healthcare Policy and Research, the study confirms the long-held belief that government reports dramatically and routinely undercount agricultural injuries and illnesses, ranging from chemical exposures to musculoskeletal injuries.
“Whatever anyone might have assumed about gaps in government statistics for agriculture, our study shows that the problem is actually about three times bigger than previously suspected,” said Leigh.
According to Leigh, the primary reasons for the discrepancy are the government’s focus on mid- to large-sized farming enterprises, which represent less than 50 percent of employment in the agricultural industry, along with the part-time nature of farm work and undisclosed information about injuries.
Leigh and his colleagues helped close these gaps by combining data for 2011 on nonfatal work-related injuries and illnesses in agriculture from a variety of sources, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics databanks for the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII), the National Agricultural Workers Survey, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages and Current Population Survey. These sources encompassed a range of farming environments, including corporate farms as well as self-employed, family-owned and small farms. The researchers then adjusted the figures based on well-established estimates of underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses from research literature.
The team estimated 74,932 injuries and illnesses for crop farms and 68,504 for animal farms, totaling 143,436 cases. They also estimated that the SOII — the government’s premier source for tracking workplace nonfatal injuries and illnesses — alone missed 73.7 percent of crop farm cases and 81.9 percent of animal farm cases, for an average of 77.6 percent for all agriculture. The study is believed to be the first to estimate 34 percent as the contribution of farmers and unpaid family workers to the total number of nonfatal injuries and illnesses.
“Our analysis used a combination of datasets along with reliable ratios to arrive at a more reasonable and accurate assessment than any single government resource can provide,” said Leigh. “The data also include all farming enterprises, rather than just those with 11 or more employees.”
Undercounting workplace injuries and illnesses affects society as a whole, according to Leigh, since the costs tend to be shifted to government social programs or charity care. It also limits the ability to identify areas where safety and prevention efforts should focus.
“Agriculture is a major driver of economic wealth as well as one of the most hazardous employment environments in the nation,” said Leigh. “It could be an even more powerful economic force if we accurately counted and addressed the causes of harm to agricultural workers and farmers.”
This research is one in a series of studies of occupational injuries and illnesses led by Leigh, who is an expert in health economics. He is currently working on a study of the cost of occupational injuries and illnesses in agriculture, including an analysis of which sectors bear that cost.
Funding for the current study was provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (grant number U54OH007550-11). Additional authors were Juan Du of Old Dominion University and Stephen McCurdy of UC Davis.
A copy of the study, titled “An Estimate of the U.S. Government’s Undercount of Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses in Agriculture," can be requested via the Elsevier newsroom at http://www.elsevier.com/about/elsevier-newsroom.
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