Occupational Health Hazards for Rural Agriculture

Graphic By: MPH@GW

With the global demand for food expected to double by the year 2050, the role of farmers who produce the food is more significant than ever. Climate change is making their work increasingly difficult. We’ve already seen how climate change can impact food production through extreme weather, soil fertility, pestilence and crop yields. But climate change is also creating new occupational hazards for agricultural workers, which means farmers tasked with helping meet global food demand must also keep a closer eye on their own safety.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports there are more than 570 million farms worldwide, more than 90 percent of which are owned by an individual or family. Those family farms produce about 80 percent of the world’s food. Agriculture employs more than 1.3 billion people around the world, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the global workforce. While developed nations directly employ a much smaller share of agricultural workers, the agriculture industry is still the world’s largest provider of jobs. 

Agricultural workers already face a long list of occupational hazards highlighted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Vehicle rollovers, falls, hazardous equipment and prolonged, repetitive physical activity can all lead to a wide range of injuries, and in extreme cases death. Other occupational hazards, such as exposure to heat or pesticides, may become more significant due to climate change.

A recent article from MPH @GW, the online MPH program for George Washington University, details how climate change has started to create health and safety issues. The article identified six “Hazard Zones” for workers that are directly attributable to changes in climate:

  • Heat – Workers exposed to hotter temperatures are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion.
  • Extreme Weather – Violent rain, extreme drought, flash floods and mudslides all expose workers to dangerous conditions.
  • Ozone – Warmer temperatures lead to an increase in ground-level ozone, which can be associated with serious respiratory issues such as lung damage, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) – Burning coal, gasoline, oil, trash or other materials releases PAHs that are linked to certain types of cancer.
  • Workplace Violence – Multiple studies have found a relationship between heat and crime, or aggressive and violent behavior. 
  • Pathogens and Vector-Borne Diseases – Standing water created by extreme rain or flooding can be a breeding ground for certain pathogens. It can also contribute to an increase in vector-borne diseases such as Zika virus, Lyme disease or West Nile virus.

Agricultural workers who spend much of their time outdoors are particularly vulnerable to many of these hazards. Developed nations have resources and infrastructure to mitigate these risks through planning and development, labor policy and safety regulations, or treatment and prevention programs for workers. But poorer workers in developing nations have fewer options to protect against these growing risks. 

The occupational hazards don’t just threaten the safety of agricultural workers who must toil under these conditions. Ultimately, such risks may have a global impact. Agricultural workers will play a significant role in whether we meet our global food demand, so their health is our health.