A recent study by health economists at the University of California at Davis and Old Dominion University estimates that over three quarters of all agricultural nonfatal injuries and illnesses are not included in official counts kept by federal agencies. The study, which was published in the April edition of the Annals of Epidemiology, used several sources of data to estimate the undercounting and considered various factors that affect whether or not an injury or illness is ever reported.
The official count of agricultural injuries and illnesses in 2011 on both crop and animal farms, reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 32,100; however, this number does not include injuries or illnesses sustained by workers on farms with less than 11 employees, by contracted workers, or family members. It also does not account for failures to report injuries. When conservative adjustments are made, the estimated number of job-related injuries and illnesses experienced by agricultural workers in 2011 rises to 143,436.
Agricultural injuries and illnesses take many forms from falls, cuts, and lifting injuries to chemical exposures, vehicle and machinery accidents, and even chronic pain associated with repetitive movement and ergonomic issues. These conditions disproportionately affect migrant and seasonal farmworkers and, with this study, we now know that these injuries are even more widespread than previously reported.
Lack of reporting and undercounting of injuries and illnesses have serious consequences for farmworkers, many of whom do not receive information on how to prevent, avoid, and care for injuries or how to report violations of their labor rights. Agriculture, as an industry, is dangerous. The most affected individuals belong to a workforce that is less able to advocate for its basic rights. This information is not new, but as we are better able to measure how dangerous agricultural occupations are, we can use this data to implement safety measures and better support the people who experience the risks associated with work in agriculture.
Accurate injury and illness reporting will justify stronger policy to protect this valuable workforce, including increasing educational programs to inform farmworkers of the risks to their health, help them prevent injuries, and to exercise the basic rights and protections afforded to all workers in the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform will also support farmworkers and decrease agricultural injury by increasing access to information and removing barriers to health care.