Safety and Health

Less than 5% of the workforce in industrialized nations is employed in agriculture, while nearly 50% of the worldwide workforce is engaged in agriculture. Agricultural work varies from highly mechanized to the manually arduous.

Agriculture is one of the three most dangerous sectors in which to work, along with construction and mining. Out of a total of the estimated 335,000 fatal workplace accidents that occur worldwide each year, some 170,000 of these involve agricultural workers. The work environment involves exposure to the physical hazards of weather, terrain, fires and machinery; toxicological hazards of pesticides, fertilizers and fuels; and health insults of dust. Agricultural work is associated with a variety of health problems. Agricultural workers are at a high risk for particular cancers, respiratory diseases and injuries. Because of the remote location of much of this work, health services are lacking,often without appropriate safety and health measures, information and training.

Machinery, such as tractors and harvesters, account for the highest rates of injury and death among agricultural workers and self-employed farmers. Exposure to pesticides and other agrochemicals constitutes one of the main occupational risks, which could  lead to illness or death. Other hazards are inherent in animal handling and contact with dangerous plants and biological agents, and give rise to allergies, respiratory disorders, zoonotic infections and parasitic diseases. Noise-induced hearing loss, musculoskeletal disorders, such as repetitive stress injuries and back pain, as well as stress and psychological disorders are also frequent. nfectious diseases such as tuberculosis are a serious for the migrant farm labourers and sexually transmitted diseases are a problem in some cases where male migrant workers predominate. The situation is particularly evident in developing countries and in the farms or plantations which use a lot immigrant workers in  some of the countries in transition or even in some industrialized countries.

Exposure to agrichemicals poses an increasing health risk in agricultural work. Pesticide sales and use have continued to climb over the years. In developing countries, workers and farmers face greater risks due to the increasing use of more toxic chemicals – which may banned or restricted in other countries – non-use of suitable personal protetive equipment bcause it is not available, too costly or uncomfortable, incorrect application techniques, poorly maintained equipment, inadequate storage practices, and the reuse of old chemical containers for food and water storage. The end users often do not have access to information on the risks associated to the use of chemicals and on the necessary precautions and correct dosage. A joint press release of the ILO/WHO number of work related accidents and illnesses  indicated that use of pesticides causes some 70,000 poisoning deaths each year, and at least seven million cases of acute and long term non fatal illnes.

The incidence of occupational hazards in agriculture is generally poorly recorded and documented. Official data tend to under-report occupational accidents. In many countries agricultural workers do not benefit from employment injury benefit schemes, either because the social protection system is weak or because agricultural workers are specifically excluded from general schemes. In the case of illness and injury associated with agrochemicals, poor reporting is compounded by the difficulty of establishing a correct diagnosis, especially as the most serious effects become apparent after years or decades of exposure. Many workers may never see a doctor because health services are not available or easily accessible in rural areas, and few medical pratitioners, even in OECD countries are able to clearly diagnose and treat intoxication from pesticides.  

One of the distinguishing characteristics of agricultural work is that working and living conditions are interwoven. Workers and their families live on agricultural land, where there is much environmental spillover from the occupational risks mentioned above. Wider community exposure to pesticides may come in the form of contamination of foodstuffs and clothes, the misuse of containers for food or water storage, the diversion of chemically-treated seeds for human consumption, and the contamination of ground water with chemical wastes. Rural communities often lack the education and information they need to prevent or respond appropriately to the risks they face.  

The Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention, 2001 (No. 184) is the first international instrument that addresses the safety and health hazards facing workers in agriculture in a comprehensive manner. It proposes a framework on which national policies can be developed together with mechanisms to ensure the participation of workers’ and employers’ organizations in that process. The Convention covers preventive and protective measures regarding machinery safety, handling and transport of materials, chemicals management, animal handling, and the construction and maintenance of agricultural facilities. Other provisions address the specific needs of young workers, temporary and seasonal workers, and of women workers before and after childbirth.This Convention has been ratified by Argentina ,Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Fiji, Finland, Kyrgyzstan, Luxembourg, Republic of Moldova, Sao Tome and Principe, Slovakia, Sweden, Ukraine and Uruguay. 

Further guidance is provided in codes of practice and practical guides. They are drawn up with the objective of providing guidance to those who may be engaged in the framing of programmes on occupational safety and health in agriculture. These documents also offer guidelines to employers’ and workers’ organizations. 
Here are some examples of the ILO’s guidance documents relevant to safety and health in agriculture and forestry:

  • Codes of Practice: Safe construction and operation of tractors, (1976). Safe design and use of chain saws (1978); Safety and health in forestry work (1998).
  • Technical Guides: Guide to safety in agriculture (1969), Guide to health and hygiene in agricultural work (1979), Safety and health in the use of agrochemicals: a guide (1987). Occupational Health and Safety Series: No.34 Safety and health of migrant workers (1983); No. 44 Dermatoses et professions (1983); No. 38 Safe use of pesticides: guidelines (1985); No. 39 Occupational cancer: prevention and control (1988); No. 59 Maximum weights in load lifting and carrying (1988); No. 63 The organization of first aid in the workplace (1989); andNo. 67 Occupational lung diseases: prevention and control (1991).

A new draft Code of Practice on Safety and Health in Agriculture was just adopted in the end of October 2010. This draft code was designed to improve working conditions in agriculture which employs some one billion workers worldwide. The overall objective of the new Code is to help promote a more preventive occupational safety and health (OSH) culture in agriculture which employs more than a third of the world’s labour force, second only to services. It complements the ILO’s Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention 2001 (No.184), and its supplementing Recommendation (No.192), and provides further guidance for their application in practice.

The ILO and IEA are collaborating to prepare a practical manual on Ergonomic Checkpoints in Agriculture with the aim of presenting concrete guidance on easy-to-implement improvements for agriculture workers particularly in developing countries. A first draft Ergonomic Checkpoints in Agriculture has been reviewed by an international experts panel assembled by the IEA and ILO. This draft presents 100 ergonomic interventions aimed at improving safety, health and working conditions in small-scale agricultural farms with a clear focus on practical, low-cost solutions. The validity of these practical solutions has been confirmed also through recent ILO activities in some developing countries in Asia, Central Asia, Latin America and Africa. It is encouraging that the use of action-oriented tools such as checklists referring to readily applicable ergonomic checkpoints has led to many concrete improvements by farmers in these countries. It is expected that this manual will be completed and published by the ILO in the course of 2010-2011.

The ILO’s technical cooperation activities on safety and health in agriculture have been focused on the promotion in the member States of voluntary, participatory and action-oriented actions to improve working conditions and work organizations in agricultural work. To this end, a training package called “Work Improvement in Neighbourhood Development” (WIND) was developed and promoted by the ILO.  WIND is a programme aiming at promoting practical improvements in agricultural households by the initiatives of village families and is being applied in particular in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In promoting better occupational safety and health, FAO plays a leading role in reducing occupational hazards related to pesticide use through a number of programmes. The “Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Programme” helps farming communities reduce the overall use of pesticides and select less hazardous products when pesticide use remains needed. The IPM Programme has conducted several studies on farmer poisoning and provides assistance for capacity building and policy reform to reduce pesticide risks.

FAO has been a major contributor to the development and enforcement of standards and codes of practice within the international framework of cooperation. The “International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides” is considered the main instrument to set forth responsibilities and establish voluntary standards of conduct for all public and private entities engaged in or affecting the distribution and use of pesticides. Implementation of the Code of Conduct with additional guidance provided through an expanding library of Technical Guidelines helps improve regulatory control of pesticides. Special attention is being paid to the phasing out of highly toxic pesticides.

FAO also provides part of the Secretariat for the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, which is an important instrument in bringing attention to highly hazardous pesticides and limiting their use.

Since 1994, the FAO Programme on the Prevention and Disposal of Obsolete Pesticides has been sounding the alarm regarding the existence and the dangers of obsolete pesticide stocks worldwide. These are pesticide formulations that degraded over time, or got banned while still in stock. It is estimated that half a million tonnes of obsolete pesticides are scattered throughout the developing world. The Programme provides technical assistance to competent authorities and stakeholders of developing countries through capacity building for better management of pesticides, prevention and elimination of obsolete pesticide stock, environmental risk assessment and stock management. Furthermore, in partnership with governments and donors, FAO provides the necessary resources for safeguarding and disposal of obsolete stockpiles. One such recent international partnership initiative is the Africa Stockpiles Programme (ASP).

FAO and ILO are both members of the IOMC through which the work of inter-governmental organizations on chemical related matters is coordinated. Though no formal collaboration between the ILO and the Obsolete Pesticides Management Group is yet in place, the basic principles encompassed in the ILO Convention No.184 and the Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170) and its accompanying Recommendation (No.177) are always considered in the implementation of programmes dealing with obsolete pesticides.

ILO and FAO are collaborating at country level (as in Mozambique ) to develop linkages in the field of social protection and occupational safety and health. FAO Farmer Field School (FFS) extension approach is increasingly addressing issues of occupational health and safety as part of their curriculum for farmers’ advancement, and linkages to ILO’s “Work Improvement for Neighbourhood Development” (WIND) are being identified. WIND is a powerful methodology for improving conditions of work and life of families in rural and agricultural undertakings. It is also a tool for sharing local knowledge and for enhancing solidarity through group work with emphasis on practical linkages between health protection, poverty reduction and community development.