By Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media
Farm work has always been one of the most dangerous jobs in America — as the government has reported, academics have researched and those doing the work well know.
But new research from the University of California-Davis suggests for the first time that it’s a much more dramatic problem than the federal government recognizes, making the hazards faced by agriculture workers the most undercounted of any industry in the U.S.
Federal agencies responsible for tracking farm injuries and illnesses fail to report 77 percent of the problems that befall farmers and ag workers, according to a study published this month on the “Annals of Epidemiology.”
While the study confirms what academics have long believed and watchdogs have found on the lack of accuracy in government statistics on nonfatal occupational hazards, the differences were still very surprising, said lead researcher Paul Leigh, a UC-Davis professor of public health sciences.
“I was expecting . . . maybe 50 percent, maybe 60 percent at the outside. But to have the median estimate as 77 percent — I about fell off my chair,” he said. “Quite the eye-popping number.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 19,700 injuries and illnesses among those working in crop production in 2011, compared to the 74,932 found by the UC-Davis research, a 73.7 percent difference. In livestock work, the government reported 12,300 in 2011, while the UC-Davis team said 68,504 were hurt on animal farms, an 81.9 percent difference.
The differences can be attributed to the government’s sole reliance on one dataset while the researchers looked at several agencies’ figures, Leigh said. The government’s numbers were also lower because it focuses on larger farms to the exclusion of small family-owned operations, and because of the part-time and migratory nature of ag workers, he said.
The other two problems in undercounting are negligence by employers who fail to make the reports and the large number of undocumented ag workers. Estimates are that 53 percent of crop workers are illegal immigrants.
Deportation is the chief fear for immigrants who fail to report any problem to a government agency. But another fear is losing every connection to their livelihood, said Suzanne Gladney, founder of the Migrant Farmworkers Project, a group located an hour east of Kansas City, Mo.
The apple and peach pickers who get assistance from the Migrant Farmworkers Project are often brought to the area either by a family member or a crew leader, who set them up with their job, housing and transportation, Gladney said.
Reporting an eye injury or a fall from a ladder, the most common hazards for the fruit pickers, can mean the loss of a job, she said.
“If you do something that irritates somebody, your whole system starts to fall apart,” Gladney said. “So you’re really encouraged against being a troublemaker or wave-maker of any kind.”
Injuries are as varied as the work, whether a person is using a machine or stooping in a field to cut crops. Leigh said the researchers used conservative figures, much like the government, so estimates for job-related cancers, chronic pulmonary disease or circulatory diseases were not included.
Asthma from grain dust or neurological problems from long-term exposure to pesticides and chemicals are often not counted because they won’t be diagnosed for 10 or 20 years, he said.
Ultimately, the discrepancy in counting injuries can hinder agriculture as a driver of economic wealth, Leigh said, passing costs on to government social programs and charity care, while also limiting the focus on safety and prevention efforts.
“[Agriculture] could be an even more powerful economic force if we accurately counted and addressed the causes of harm to agricultural workers and farmers,” he said.
Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration of public media stations in the Midwest, covers food and food production issues.