Occupational and Environmental Health
Agriculture consistently ranks as one of the most hazardous occupations in the nation. Farmworkers have few federal workplace safety protections; only a few states, California and Washington among them, provide additional protections. A small fraction of workers benefit from union collective bargaining agreements, which require additional safety measures.
Among the hazards farmworker face are:
- Unsanitary working and living conditions (such as lack of adequate drinking water and toilet facilities)
- Crowded and substandard housing
- Musculoskeletal injuries from repeated stooping, lifting, and cutting
- Fall hazards
- Other equipment-related injuries
- Exposure to heat and other extreme conditions
- Exposure to pesticides
Farmworkers, especially those who mix and apply pesticides, face greater risks of pesticide illness. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 3,000 farmworkers suffer acute pesticide poisoning every year through occupational exposures. However, for a variety of reasons, the number of pesticide poisonings among farmworkers is much larger than reported. There is no national surveillance system for acute pesticide illness reporting and no surveillance system for tracking chronic illness related to pesticide exposure.
Workers may be exposed due to direct spray, drift, or contact with pesticide residues on the crop or soil. Farmworker families can also be exposed to 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.
Farmworker Justice develops clinician guides, issue briefs, and educational materials for advocates, service providers, and workers on occupational and environmental health. These materials are available in our Resource Center. We also partner with state and national organizations to engage in advocacy in Congress and the Administration to ensure occupational safety and health protections for farmworkers.