Quantifying the economic impact of occupational injuries and illnesses in the United States

As farmworker advocates, we understand the emotional, physical and economic toll of occupational injuries and illness on farmworkers. Recently, a report came out that detailed the cost of occupational injuries and illness in the US. Paul Leigh, from the University of California, Davis conducted an economic analysis focused on low-wage occupations, defined as jobs that pay an hourly rate below $11.18. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) and Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII), he estimated that workplace injuries and illnesses cost $39.1 billion a year. This cost not only includes medical expenses but also productivity costs including lost earnings, fringe benefits and home production. To put this in perspective, this total is more than the annual estimated cost for strokes ($36.6 billion a year). Hypertension, a disease that disproportionately affects Latinos, costs an estimated $54 billion a year. In 2010, there were a total of 1.7 million work-related injuries and illnesses, including both fatal and non-fatal.

Despite these high figures, Dr. Leigh acknowledges that these numbers actually underestimate the true cost and extent of work-related injuries and illness because farmworkers and domestic workers are not included in this analysis. This exclusion is unfortunate, because agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the US. Farmworkers encounter such workplace safety hazards as exposure to pesticides; lack of adequate drinking water and unsanitary working conditions; musculoskeletal injuries from lengthy stooping, lifting and cutting; farm machinery and equipment, including tractors, ladders and sharp tools; and exposure to extreme weather conditions.

According to the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, in 2010 workers in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, suffered non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses at a rate of 4.8 per 100 full-time workers. The fatal injury rate for these workers was 24.7 per 100,000 full-time workers, by far the highest of any sector. But even this data does not fully capture the extent of occupational illnesses and injuries experienced by farmworkers due to underreporting and the migratory and seasonal nature of farm work.

Despite the uniquely dangerous and vulnerable workforce, few occupational health and safety laws protect farmworkers, and some specifically exclude them. Agricultural jobs need not be so dangerous. We need to make conditions better. Agricultural standards under the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act need to be expanded. The EPA must revise outdated pesticide safety protections under its Worker Protection Standard (WPS) without further delay. Workers’ compensation insurance for farmworkers should be required nationwide, not just in a handful of states.

Like all workers, farmworkers have the right to safe working conditions. We all benefit from their hard work and they deserve to be treated with dignity. We can take a step in improving their overall health and safety by strengthening worksite protections for farmworkers.

1. J. Paul Leigh, Numbers and Costs of Occupational Injuries and Ilness in Low-Wage Occupations, Center for Poverty Research and Center for Health Care Policy and Research, University of California, Davis, Dec. 2012. http://defendingscience.org/sites/default/files/Leigh_Low-wage_Workforce...
2.Liz Borkowski & Celeste Monforton, Mom’s Off Work ‘Cause She Got Hurt: The Economic Impact of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses in the U.S.’s Growing Low-Wage Workforce, Policy Brief, December 2012. http://defendingscience.org/sites/default/files/Borkowski_Monforton_Low-...
4.Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/osh_10202011.pdf
5. OSHA, http://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/agriculturaloperations/