Workplace Hazards

Photo by David Bacon

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

Farmworkers are often afraid to complain about health and safety violations because of fear of employer retaliation. The limited legal protections, use of crew leaders, and fear of employer retaliation coupled with additional factors, such as frequent mobility, poverty, inadequate training, language barriers, and unfamiliarity with American law, result in many, preventable workplace injuries and illnesses.

Among the most serious safety and health hazards farmworkers face are:

  • Lack of adequate drinking water and toilet facilities
  • Musculoskeletal injuries from lengthy stooping, lifting, and cutting
  • Farm machinery and equipment, including tractors, ladders and sharp tools
  • Exposure to pesticides
  • Exposure to extreme weather conditions

Field Sanitation

In 1987, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued the Field Sanitation Standard with the goal of providing farmworkers with access to clean water and toilet facilities in the field. The Field Sanitation Standard requires agricultural employers to provide toilets, potable drinking water, and hand washing facilities to all hand-laborers in the field. It mandates that employers allow employees reasonable use of these facilities and that they inform employees of the importance of good hygiene practices.

The Field Sanitation Standard applies only to workplaces where employees are engaged in “hand-labor,” which includes work done by hand or with hand-tools during cultivation, weeding, planting, and harvesting of vegetables, nuts, fruits, seedlings, or other crops, and the packing of produce in the field into containers. It does not apply to logging operations, livestock, or permanent structures (for example, canneries). The Field Sanitation Standard requires agricultural employers to provide the following, without cost to the employee:

• Potable drinking water -Agricultural employers must provide potable drinking water that is suitably cool and in sufficient amounts, taking into account the temperature, humidity, and nature of the work. It must be accessible to workers and dispensed in single-use cups or by fountain. Dippers, common cups, and reusable cups are not permitted.

• Toilets and hand washing facilities -One toilet and one hand-washing facility are required for every twenty (20) workers. Toilets must be adequately ventilated and constructed to ensure privacy, with doors that can be closed and locked from inside. Hand washing facilities should include potable water, soap and single-use towels to dry hands. Toilets and hand washing facilities must be located in close proximity to each other and within ¼ mile of each worker. If this is not possible, they must be located at the point of closest vehicle access.

• Notification of location of toilets, hand washing facilities, and drinking water, and allowance of reasonable use of these facilities- Employers must notify each employee of the location of water, hand washing, and toilet facilities. Employees must be allowed reasonable opportunities during the workday to use them.

• Maintenance of facilities in accordance with public health sanitation practices- Employers are responsible for ensuring that potable drinking water, toilet, and hand washing facilities are maintained in accordance with public health sanitation practices. Drinking water containers must be constructed of materials that maintain water quality and must be kept covered and regularly cleaned. Water must be refilled daily or as necessary. Hand washing facilities must be maintained in a sanitary condition and refilled with water as necessary. Toilet facilities must also be kept clean and waste must be disposed of in a sanitary fashion.

• Information on the importance of good hygiene- Employers are required to inform employees of the importance of good hygiene practices. They should indicate that these practices are important to minimize heat-related illness, communicable diseases, urine retention, and pesticide exposure. They must encourage employees to use the water and facilities provided for personal sanitation, to drink water frequently, urinate as frequently as necessary, wash hands both before and after using the toilet, and wash before eating or smoking.


The federal Field Sanitation Standard applies to all agricultural establishments employing 11 or more workers in “hand-labor” on any given day during the previous 12 months. It is enforced in most states by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD). However, a number of states, including Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington enforce the regulations through state agencies under cooperative agreements with OSHA.

Agencies and inspectors responsible for Field Sanitation Standard enforcement will conduct routine inspections to monitor employer compliance with the regulations, as well as some “for cause” inspections that are usually initiated in response to a complaint or referral.

Musculoskeletal Injuries

There is no OSHA standard relating to musculoskeletal injuries. In November 2000, following a ten-year battle between business and labor over rules designed to eliminate workplace musculoskeletal disorders, OSHA issued an ergonomics standard. However, in March 2001 Congress repealed this OSHA standard. Consequently, OSHA must rely on the OSH Act’s general duty clause—with its more difficult burden of proof—to protect workers against musculoskeletal injuries.

Fall Hazards

Fall Hazards Every year, thousands of farmworkers suffer fall-related work injuries, causing economic hardship to the workers and their families, and all too often resulting in serious disability and tragic death. In industries covered by OSHA’s existing fall protection standards, fall-related deaths and injuries have been substantially reduced through compliance with the standards. But compounding the occupational hazards and adversities already suffered by farmworkers, agricultural employment has been excluded from coverage of the fall protection standards.

Fall hazards exist in all types of farm operations in both crop and animal production, including work in vegetable fields, packing sheds, fruit orchards, tree nurseries, greenhouses, mushroom houses, dairies, poultry farms, cattle feedlots, and other livestock operations. Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that thousands of agricultural workers are injured by falls every year. According to these data, the non-fatal fall-related injury rate among farmworkers in crop production in 2009 was 18.5 for every 10,000 workers – slightly below the rate for construction workers and far higher than for the transportation, mining, or manufacturing industries. Data also indicates that the frequency of fall related deaths in agriculture is among the highest of any U.S. industry. According to the BLS, 157 farmworkers died from occupational falls between 2004 and 2009, and the fall fatality rate in agriculture last year was more than twice as high as those in transportation, manufacturing, or trade occupations.

Falls in agriculture are readily preventable and the high injury rates from falls could be reduced through common-sense precautions, including conducting regular and frequent inspections of ladders, working surfaces, and walking areas, and providing basic safety training on the prevention of slips, trips, and falls for all employees.

OSHA’s standards include ladder and fall safety requirements similar to state provisions already adopted to protect agricultural workers in California, Oregon, and Washington, without causing economic hardship to agricultural employers. Experience from these large agricultural states shows that implementation and compliance with fall standards can effectively reduce costly and potentially tragic fall-related injuries in agriculture.

OSHA is undertaking a revision of its fall protection standards, and farmworkers would continue to be excluded under OSHA’s revised regulations as now proposed. The need for fall protection in agriculture is clear and urgent, and providing that protection to agricultural workers is technologically and economical feasible. In December 2010, Farmworker Justice submitted comments urging OSHA to extend the proposed fall protection standards to agricultural employment.

Heat Stress

Heat Stress Every year, a number of farmworkers die from heat-related illness while working in agricultural fields, and many times that number are injured by heat stress while on the job. During the 15-year period between 1992 and 2006, 68 crop workers died of heat-related causes.

Heat-related illnesses affecting farmworkers can be easily overlooked, because they are not specific to any crop, task, or equipment, and develop in commonly-occurring environmental conditions. However, farmworkers are frequently at higher risk for these illnesses than workers in other industries, because they work outdoors in the direct sunlight and humidity of summer. Additionally, work activity generates large amounts body heat, which is then retained in the body by heavy work clothing and equipment. The resulting heat retention - heat stress - can overwhelm the body, creating a dangerous and potentially fatal situation. This type of occupational heat stress, and the resulting injuries and deaths, can be entirely avoided by means of a few straightforward precautions.

Heat stress occurs when body heat builds up from both external (e.g., the weather) and internal (e.g., muscle activity) sources. The resulting increase in core body temperature can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and if permitted to continue, neurological impairment, multi-organ failure, and death. Prevention is the most important factor in avoiding the adverse effects of heat stress. Avoiding strenuous activity, especially outdoors, during the heat of the day, acclimatizing (gradually building up tolerance for working in heat), and drinking adequate quantities of water are important preventive measures. However, these factors are often beyond the control of farmworkers, who must work under the conditions required by their employers.

View Heat Stress Resources