Occupational and Environmental Health

Workplace Hazards

Agriculture consistently ranks as one of the most hazardous occupations in the nation. Nonetheless, farmworkers have few federal workplace safety protections. Only a few states, California and Washington among them, provide additional safeguards for farmworkers. A small fraction of workers (about 2%) benefit from union collective bargaining agreements which require additional safety measures.

Among the most serious workplace hazards farmworkers face are:

  • Unsanitary working conditions, such as lack of adequate drinking water and toilet facilities
  • Musculoskeletal injuries from repeated stooping, lifting, and cutting
  • Fall hazards
  • Other equipment-related injuries
  • Exposure to heat and other extreme weather conditions
  • Exposure to pesticides (see below) 

Pesticide Safety

Farmworkers, and especially those who mix and apply pesticides, face greater risks of becoming poisoned by pesticides because they work with pesticides at their greatest concentrations and strengths. 

  • Workers who mix, load or apply pesticides can be exposed to toxic pesticides due to spills, splashes, defective, missing or inadequate protective equipment, direct spray, or drift. Workers who perform hand labor tasks in areas that have been treated with pesticides face exposure from direct spray, drift or contact with pesticide residues on the crop or soil. Farmworker families can also be injured by pesticides when farmworker children play in treated fields; when workers inadvertently take home pesticide residues on their hair, skin or clothing; or when pesticides drift into residences, schools and other areas located near fields.
  • Pesticides pose risks of short- and long- term illness to farmworkers and their families.  Acute (immediate) health effects of pesticide exposure include rash, eye irritation, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, and headaches.  More serious acute effects include difficulty breathing, seizures, loss of consciousness and death.  Chronic (long-term) effects can result in cancer, neurological disorders, hormonal and reproductive health problems, birth defects and infertility. Even low levels of pesticide exposure over time can lead to these chronic health effects.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 3,000 farmworkers suffer acute pesticide poisoning every year through occupational exposures.  A study of acute pesticide poisonings between 1998 and 2005 among farmworkers in the U.S. found that an average of 57.6 out of every 100,000 agricultural workers experience acute pesticide poisoning, illness or injury each year. However, for a variety of reasons, the number of pesticide poisonings among farmworkers is much larger than that actually reported. There is no national surveillance system for acute pesticide illness reporting and no surveillance system for tracking chronic illness related to pesticide exposure. 

Visit our Resource Center to see our materials on these topics.