This OSHwiki article is based on the EU-OSHA Foresight Report on new and emerging risks in OSH: ‘Review on the Future of Agriculture and Occupational Safety and Health (OSH)’ completed in November 2020. The report examines a number of issues affecting the future of farming and forestry; smart farming (precision farming, digitalisation, etc.) and other technology developments; climate change and environmental issues; society and consumer trends; labour market issues; international trade and economic considerations. The report reviews these trends, identifies the resulting technological and organisational changes in the sector and defines the implications for occupational safety and health of farmers, foresters and agricultural and forestry workers. This OSHwiki article aims to give an overview of some of the most important issues and does not intend to cover all aspects of this very complex area, the above EU-OSHA Foresight Report providing a more comprehensive overview.
The total full-time equivalent EU agricultural workforce has been estimated at 9.7 million workers by Eurostat (EU 28) but owing to widespread part-time activity in the sector a total of 20.5 million EU workers are estimated to contribute to the output of the sector. The EU agricultural workforce has steadily declined by 35% over the last decade with a workforce projected to drop to 7.9 million in 2030. This downward trend has been driven by several factors including the declining number of smaller family farms and an inter-related drive for economies of scale through larger more efficient agricultural holdings, as well as increased growth in machinery and technology.
A sector with serious OSH challenges
Agriculture and forestry are among the most dangerous professions in Europe with a high level of accidents affecting the sustainability and viability of the sector. Over the last 10 years, there has been an average of over 500 registered deaths per year in the agriculture and forestry sector and over 150,000 non-fatal accidents per year. Recent research indicates that there is significant under-reporting of both fatal and non-fatal accidents in the agriculture and forestry sectors throughout Europe. In many instances, national reporting also places agriculture and forestry top or nearby in terms of risk sectors.
Traditional occupational safety risks in the sector
Stubborn long-standing risks (such as accidents related to tractor and machinery and animal handling) remain largely untackled in the sector. The table below provides some of the most important accident risks still dominating in agriculture.
|The top eight killers in agriculture
|Transportation accidents (being run over or overturning of vehicles)
|Falls from height (from trees, through roofs)
|Being struck by falling or moving objects (machinery, buildings, bales, tree trunks)
|Drowning (in water reservoirs, slurry tanks, grain silos)
|Handling livestock (attacked or crushed by animals, zoonotic diseases)
|Contact with machinery (unguarded moving parts)
|Entrapments (under collapsed structures)
Source: Prepared by the author based on European Commission (2011). Protecting health and safety of workers in agriculture, livestock farming, horticulture and forestry
Farm vehicles and machinery are a major source of workplace fatalities in agriculture accounting for 48% of all workplace deaths in Ireland for example.
In forestry, accidents with forwarders are similar to those involving tractors and other forestry machines, such as skidders and tractor crawlers, and involve risks such as overturning, penetrating, being struck by vehicles, slips and trips, falling objects, etc. Health and safety hazards also include vibration and noise.
Tractor over-turns still remain a stubborn problem in several European countries. According to one recent Spanish study, there have been 595 deaths by tractor over-turn in the last 10 years, approximately one death per week. 91% of these deaths involved tractors either without a roll-over protection structure (ROPS) or without the system properly engaged. 54% of these deaths involved farmers over 60 years old.
Although in use for the last 35 years in agriculture, quad bike or All Terrain Vehicle (ATVs) injuries amongst farmers and foresters are also of concern in a number of countries, with a number of high profile fatal cases involving children. Solutions include improving driver competence, wearing a helmet and fitting a rollover/crush protection device.
Chainsaw use will continue to be the most important risk in forestry for some time. In addition, to cutting and felling-related accidents, there are additional risks from vibration, noise, exhaust fumes and the use of fuel (burns and dangerous substances risks). A large number of older chainsaws are still in use, particularly in lower income countries, and there are also reports of non-approved or sub-standard machines being used, thus increasing risks. At the European level, there is a certification for professional use, the (European Chainsaw Certificate (ECC) of the European Forestry and Environmental Skills Council (EFESC) which includes significant health and safety competency training.
Animal handling fatalities account for 13% of all farming accidents in Ireland demonstrating the high level of risk involved in handling unpredictable and strong animals. Measures to prevent such accidents include the use of adequate penning and treatment facilities, training of farmers in work practices and breeding for docility.
Occupational health challenges
Farmer health is a key issue in the sector. COVID-19 and the related occupational safety and health risks highlight the importance of health and working conditions in the sector with the European Commission establishing guidelines to protect seasonal workers, including their safety and health and some Member States establishing guidelines for the agricultural sector. Over 60% of agricultural workers report a limiting chronic disease and high levels of cardiovascular disease (CVD). According to an EU survey from 2012 workers from the agriculture sector were ranked higher than all other sectors in reporting that their work affected their health. Eurostat also reports that work-related health problems most often occur in the ‘agriculture, hunting and forestry’ sector along with mining and quarrying which is related to the fact that less favourable job characteristics are more prevalent in these sectors, such as manual work and atypical working hours. A number of occupational health and safety risks affect farmers and foresters, such as pesticide-related risks, musculoskeletal disorders, zoonoses, skin cancer and stress and psychosocial issues which are all major emerging and continuing risks for the sector which have either not been adequately managed or have been underestimated owing to lack of accurate data over the years.
Eurostat reports that Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) are the most serious work-related health problem in agriculture. Furthermore, MSDs appear to be more important in agriculture than all other sectors. The European Working Conditions Survey reports that 57% of agricultural workers report backache, 55% upper limb pain and 46% lower limb pain, being the occupation with the highest reporting levels. For example, in the UK, MSDs account for around half of all occupational illnesses in the sector. One study points to a life-time prevalence of any form of MSD among farmers of 90.6%. Further action to reduce the impact of MSDs in agriculture is still very much needed as they will continue to be one of the major OSH challenges for the sector.
Pesticide-related risks are a major occupational challenge for the sector as it is difficult to document the long-term effects on the health of agricultural workers. This is complicated by the atypical nature of the agricultural workforce, self-employed, family members, seasonal or temporary workers and the lack of consistent occupational health monitoring in many instances. However, according to one important French study farmers develop certain types of cancer more often than the rest of society owing to the use of pesticides (Melanomas +25% in men and +22% in women, lymphomas +47% in men and +55% in women). Prostate cancer is also two times higher for farmers with a link to the banned substance of lindane, an anti-parasite treatment used in livestock farming and arboriculture. Re-entry into the sprayed area has been identified by experts as one of the most likely influencing factors. In addition, findings by the French Public Health Ministry point to a link between the use of pesticides and an increased level of Parkinson´s Disease amongst farmers (13% higher than other professions).
Farmers, foresters and agricultural workers are also amongst the professions most affected by the risk of zoonotic diseases and are at risk of exposure to biological hazards. Ticks, insect bites and stings are a particular risk for foresters and forestry workers. Likewise, there appears to be a significant under-reporting of zoonotic diseases in the sector and health surveillance amongst farmers, particularly small and family farms.
Psychosocial risks, mental health and stress are often perceived by farmers to be one of the most important challenges facing the industry. In addition, international and French data point to a higher suicide rate amongst farmers, being 20% above the average national suicide rate of other professions in the case of French male farmers.
Farmers are subjected to multiple ‘stressors’:
|Farmers' stress factors
|Climate change – uncertainty and unpredictability: Seasonality, weather, extreme weather, loss of crops, planning challenges.
|Financial pressures: Reduced influence of farmers in food value chain. Weakened bargaining power against large retailers, decreasing prices for agricultural produce and lower profit margins.
|Growing regulatory and administrative pressures: Food safety, animal health and welfare, biotechnology and GMOs, environmental standards, CAP cross-compliance practices, CAP reform, EU ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’ (reduction of antibiotics and chemical pesticides and fertilisers, as well as improved animal welfare standards.)
|Increasing consumer and societal demands on food production: Increasing demand for quality - increase in quality labels and systems (organic food, GMO free, animal welfare and feed practices), reducing meat consumption and production.
|Farmer bashing and lack of attractiveness of farming: Farmers held responsible for ethical and environmental aspects of farming and working conditions considered unattractive to many young people.
|Emerging public health and animal/plant emerging disease/pest calamities: COVID-19 has highlighted the impact that diseases can have on agro-food production, emerging and re-emerging plant and animal–related diseases and pests, such as foot and mouth disease, African swine fever, , bark beetle in forests and numerous other plant and animal diseases and pests.
|Physical attacks and threats: More extreme environmental and animal welfare campaigners exerting increased pressure on farmers and foresters through public PR pressure and shame campaigns (farmer bashing) or even carrying out direct action or attacks, particularly intensive farming practices.
|Rural crime: theft (sometimes with violence or threat of violence) of livestock, agricultural goods and machinery, impact on feeling of insecurity, insurance costs and financial losses from theft.
Future trends and OSH impacts
A number of trends affect the future of agriculture and forestry; smart farming (precision farming, digitalisation, etc.) and other technology developments; climate change and environmental issues; society and consumer trends; labour market and organisational issues; international trade and economic considerations.
Impact of new digital technologies and smart farming
Smart farming (digitalisation and new technologies) has been a subject of much attention in the sector, being identified as one of the few innovations, which could potentially bring about a paradigm shift in productivity and increased food production. While robotic milking parlours have been in use for some time, more recent developments such as robotic harvesters, mechanical fruit pickers and weeding machines are just some examples of the technological revolution taking place in agriculture.
According to an OECD survey, digital intensity in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector is 'low', with agriculture being amongst nine other sectors in the least advanced quarter of all sectors. Another report even places the European agriculture sector as second from bottom of all industrial sectors in terms of digitalisation.
The uptake of smart farming and forestry practices varies significantly throughout the sector. One of the most important factors with uptake is farm size coupled with income. Smart technology uptake also depends on sufficient access to broadband, but only 50% of EU rural areas have adequate access to broadband. Each country´s cultural context, level of education, generational challenges and sector-specific aspects all have a major influence on technology uptake within the EU. It is expected that the digital divide will increase the economic gap between small and large farms and between countries. The digitalisation of agriculture has the potential to impact positively on the sector, offering numerous benefits: increased agricultural production, productivity and yields, reduced production costs, improved food safety and quality through monitoring and traceability of the food chain, increased health and welfare of livestock, and improved environmental protection by allowing farmers to monitor plant health more effectively through sensors and tackle plant diseases early on.
Negative impacts of the digitalisation of agriculture
The digitalisation of agriculture will also result in some negative impacts: a reduction in jobs in the sector; a decline in competitiveness of small family farms; an increase in farmers’ dependency on large multinationals and data and tech companies; the challenge of data security becoming a stress factor for farmers; the real safety and security threat of 'hacking' and interference; and the ethical concerns and increased worker stress related to the monitoring of workforce performance and pace through new wearable technologies.
OSH improvements resulting from new digital technologies
By building safety and ergonomic features into the development and design of smart farming technologies, there will be great potential to increase workplace health and safety. The forthcoming revision of the EU Machinery Directive to take into account AI and digital technologies could contribute to this. However, safety and ergonomy through design will need to go much further in the agriculture and forestry sector, including influencing the way that farms are designed, crops are planted and animals are kept and handled. One example of in-built safety design thinking is being led by WSU Extension in the development of fruit picking management systems. In order to reduce falls and ergonomic risks for fruit pickers, apple orchards have been relayed to provide easier access to safer mechanised platforms rather than ladders. This re-design of the crop layout has meant an investment of 45,000 dollars per acre to install and a two years´ loss of apple production before apples can be picked again. This type of investment however is often as a result of long-term economic considerations (reduction of labour costs by 30-40%) in the first instance with OSH factors usually cited as additional advantages resulting from the investment.
Smart farming developments have the potential to reduce OSH risk factors and improve the working environment.
Technological solutions, including smart agriculture, have the potential to reduce workload by substituting labour for capital and minimising risk exposure. This capacity has been outlined in a range of papers e.g. Noguchi related to crop production and Jago et al. related to dairy farming.
Technological adoption, such as telecommunications, automation and PA (Precision Agriculture), will foster more efficient management systems, including time management, and increase farm profitability, minimising adverse environmental impacts and improving sustainability of agricultural production while improving OSH standards.
Smart farming solutions have the potential to simplify work systems and improve process control and safety systems management. This will improve work organisation and as a result lead to OSH improvements. However, challenges remain in many areas of agriculture owing to the irregularity and unpredictability of the work environment (soil, topography, crops and livestock, weather, etc.), making sensing particularly challenging. An intermediate step will most probably be the use of ‘co-robotics’ - designing robots to work alongside human workers, with the robots handling simple tasks while people continue to perform the more complex and delicate actions.
As we have seen with Automated Milking System (AMS) technology, the work-life balance of farmers will improve as farmers will be able to manage and monitor machines and systems virtually, at a distance and at different times, e.g. monitoring pig or poultry building environments via mobile phone, using a remote camera to monitor livestock around calving time or automated irrigation systems determining when and where to irrigate and how much to apply. This will not only reduce work and travel time for farmers but will remove unpredictability and stress from these work situations, ultimately improving well-being and OSH.
The prevention of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) through ergonomic improvement will be one of the most important benefits of the introduction of smart technologies in farming and forestry. MSDs are one of the most prevalent ill health conditions suffered by farmers.
Smart precision spraying equipment (such as remote spraying using drones or field-based robotic equipment) which can spray at distance and reduce the quantity of chemicals used provides the opportunity to reduce occupational exposure to hazardous substances, such as pesticides, as well as reducing their impact on the environment. Precision spraying equipment in some instances can reduce pesticide use by up to 80%-90%. Some smart technologies under development even remove the use of pesticides completely and depend on weed pulling or laser weed zapping technology. All of these developments are effective technologies which could contribute to the implementation of the EU Sustainable Use Directive (Directive 2009/128/EC) which advocates Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
Contact with machinery (unguarded moving parts) and transportation accidents (being run over or overturning of vehicles) are both listed amongst the top eight killers in agriculture. New technology will provide the opportunity to improve machine and vehicle safety, e.g. force-torque sensors, tactile and pressure sensors, safe max. speed, proximity sensors, area detectors and cameras, emergency stop button. Surrounding awareness and vision technologies as developed in the motor industry have the potential to enhance OSH standards but are not as well developed and widespread in the agricultural vehicle and machinery industry and forestry harvesting technology at present. However, more traditional safety measures, such as effective training and competences (including licences) and improvements to tractors and machinery should not be neglected. For example, ROPS (Roll-over Protection Systems) or rather the lack of them is still responsible for a large number of often fatal accidents in agriculture.
In 2019, 23% of UK fatal agricultural accidents occurred through the handling of livestock (attacked or crushed by animals), also listed amongst the top eight killers in agriculture (HSE). Technology used in Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) offers great potential to improve livestock safety. Use of innovative approaches, like the use of biosensors for animal health management, has gained recognition. Hostiou et al. reviewed PLF being developed in dairy farming to manage increasing herd sizes and decreasing workforce availability. PLF can facilitate herd monitoring and reduce the drudgery of repetitive tasks. Their review indicates that time savings are achievable because robots and sensors take on recurrent physical tasks (milking, feeding) while simplifying the monitoring of animals (heat, health problems, etc.) while farmers have additional flexibility to organise their work. Mental workload can be reduced due to anticipation of events (insemination, health problems) but it can also increase due to the complexity of the information involved in managing the multiple alarms or alerts and dealing with equipment failures. The relationship between farmers and their animals is also modified. They conclude that PLF can have a positive impact on dairy farmers’ work and can be attractive for young people.
New smart monitoring technologies could improve health and safety on the farm and in the forest, particularly through the use and wearing of smart devices, such as smart watches and smart PPE (personal protective equipment).
Concerning forestry, safety improvements will result from an increase in mechanised wood harvesting. However, a lot of manual work still needs to be carried out with chainsaws which present the most important risk in forestry, and their use will not be eliminated any time soon, particularly on difficult terrain and in countries with small-scale forestry operations. Despite mechanisation, nature conservation regulations (‘skidroads’ or lanes fixed at 20 metres) also have an impact on safety factors. Mechanical harvesters have a maximum reach of 10 metres and cannot penetrate sufficiently into the tree canopy in order to crop all the trees effectively. It is therefore necessary for a forest worker to cut in-between with a chainsaw. This co-operative space between workers and machines constitutes a significant risk which is made worse by the limited visibility. As a result, forest workers need to work near to the machines or even in the risk zone. They may not be seen properly by the driver of the harvester and can also be injured by falling trees cut by the harvester. This in turn increases significantly the risk of injury for the forestry manager/forestry worker. Remote controlled felling wedges can reduce risk in felling operations. Although their use is not yet widespread, they will likely be employed more frequently in the future, as with climate change there will be a need to remove damaged or dying trees.
New improved digital technologies and Apps are also being developed for recording and managing (farm) safety and health risks and supporting OSH training. Examples include farming specific hazard identification tools, tools for risk assessments, OSH audits, and a number of simulator training devices for tractors. In view of the independent, rural and small-scale working environment of many small farms, easy-to-use self-help risk assessment apps could offer real solutions for improving farm safety, if appropriately endorsed and tested by competent OSH authorities.
In summary, enormous potential exists for using technological solutions (incl. smart agriculture) to reduce OSH risk factors. However, smart farming solutions will not offer immediate respite for safety and health in the sector. The key challenge that remains is the effective adoption of such technology which is associated with variables such as farm income and scale, farmer age and education, usability of specific technology and industry and extension support for farmers. With the uptake of technology, worker skill levels will also need to be improved to keep pace with change.
Training will also needed to be adapted to the use of new technologies, particularly in terms of digital skills needs in order to ensure that workers know how to use new technologies effectively but also with confidence in order to avoid additional psychosocial pressures related to the introduction of new technologies.
OSH challenges from new digital technologies
New technologies also need to be evaluated to see if they bring any new or additional risks to the workplace.
According to the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems network, human supervision of farm robots will be needed for the foreseeable future to ensure safety at least until the technology becomes more autonomous. So-called ‘cobots’ will most likely be the first intermediary step in farming robotic development. However, there is a need to effectively manage the Human Machine interface through establishing safety protocols and OSH evaluation/certification systems for smart farm technologies, particularly when several AI systems are being employed together. Interacting and possibly competing technologies could ‘clutter’ the farm workplace, increasing the risk of malfunction or injury, if the various systems or ‘fleets or swarms’ of robots do not work effectively together. The UK HSE is presently carrying out research on the health and safety implications of cobots.
Although new technologies provide us with opportunities for improving safety, they will also reduce the workload and the number of workers necessary for carrying out certain agricultural tasks. This may increase the number of lone workers in forestry and agriculture who will be at greater risk without direct supervision. Farm entities may also be tempted to rely on cheaper technological solutions for oversight and emergency support, rather than providing accompanying workers.
Psychosocial challenges such as monotony and stress are both associated with the introduction of new automated technologies in farming and forestry. Initial stress and frustration have been experienced by farmers with malfunctioning automated systems during their initial implementation periods, such as false alarms and malfunctions as well as older workers experiencing more stress related to the introduction of new technology. Frustration also arises due to reliance on equipment where the operator is unable to fix it themself owing to the complicated technology and the risk of forfeiting the warranty, making farmers reliant on outside technical assistance which results in lost production time, additional costs and a feeling of loss of autonomy. Additional psychosocial risks can emerge related to the feeling of monotony. Task diversity is important in both farming and forestry work so that operators are not compelled to stay in fixed positions operating machinery for long periods of time and increasing risk of MSDs and cardiovascular illness.
‘Hacking’ and interference could become a real safety and security threat in the future. According to a US study, there are a number of risks which need to be managed in smart farming, such as the possibility of confidential data being stolen, systems subjected to ransomware, agricultural production disrupted and the integrity of livestock threatened. In addition, a robot tractor could be hacked and could run amok, as well as the risk of people deliberately interfering with robots, either for ‘fun’ or malicious intent in a similar way that youths have been known to ‘mess around’ with livestock on a farm.
Monitoring of workforce performance and pace through new wearable technologies could raise ethical concerns and contribute to worker stress, if not implemented properly. This risk would be most relevant in activities, such as in the horticultural sector where farm workers are monitored depending on their pro-rata performance. However, the impact here could potentially be positive, if managed effectively through collective bargaining, considering that seasonal crop workers are already monitored based on the amount of fruit they pick. These systems could add value in safety and health terms, with monitoring systems able to monitor and evaluate aspects, such as heat stress and repetitive movements.
Crop genetic improvement and New Breeding Techniques (NBTs)
Crop genetic improvements have been identified as one of the technological innovations which can make a significant contribution to productive and sustainable agriculture.
Potential Improvements from crop genetics
Genetic improvement technologies have the potential to:
- increase yields and crop quality, reducing the need for fertilisers.
- produce crops which are more resistant to certain diseases or pests (thus reducing pesticide use).
- reduce the need for water or other resources such as energy.
- reduce greenhouse gas(GHG) emissions through plants which either produce less emissions during their cultivation, actively reduce emissions by storing carbon more effectively or result in less GHG emissions during their digestion by animals.
On-going challenges related to the use of crop genetics
There are also some negative impacts which have been identified through the use of such technology:
- owing to the strictly controlled Intellectually Property (IP) of seeds and plants, there is concern that farmers may become dependent on multinational companies for continued access to both seeds and the specifically designed (and the only effective) pesticides for such crops, as we have seen in certain instances in developing countries.
- although under EU legislation the European Food Safety Authority is responsible for evaluating the safety and environmental impacts of NBTs, there is concern amongst NGOs that there could be unintended ecological impacts on indigenous crops and local species.
OSH challenges from new genetic breeding technologies
Genetic improvement is another technological development which has the potential to transform European agriculture. Improvements could include an increase in yields and crop quality, reducing the need for fertilisers; producing crops which are more resistant to pests or diseases (thus reducing pesticide use); reducing the need for water or energy, and less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The reduction in pesticide use through such genetic improvements in particular would provide a significant improvement in the safety and health of farmers and foresters. However, although offering several potential benefits to European agriculture, the future contribution of genetic breeding techniques, including new breeding technologies, to improving OSH is likely to be limited in the foreseeable future owing to legislative and regulatory uncertainty and a high level of societal reluctance towards such technologies.
Climate change and farming and forestry
Impact of climate change on farming and forestry
Climate change will impact significantly on agricultural production. On the one hand, crop yields in northern Europe may increase owing to higher temperatures and certain crops may expand further North. On the other hand, drought and heat stress on plants and animals, changes in crop phenology and the extension of pests and plant diseases will impact negatively on production in other specific regions. Changing precipitation patterns will also affect the sector with irrigation needs increasing further. Farmers will need to modify the types of crops they grow, adapting cultivation and even animal breeds to suit the changing climatic conditions. In the forestry sector, technical measures such as more effective firebreaks and the consistent clearing of brushwood are necessary to mitigate the risks of forest fires as extreme heat increases their likelihood. Intense heat, risk of fire and the changing rainfall patterns could also influence the type of trees planted in new forests to foster species resistant to drought and high temperatures or even less-flammable tree species. Overall, climate change will contribute to unpredictability and increased risks for crops, animals and farmers.
Occupational Safety and Health risks from climate change
Climate change will result in a number of changes in the agricultural workplace which will have direct impact on the working conditions and safety, health and well-being of farmers/foresters.
Extreme weather events and fires
As floods, fires and extreme weather all increase under climate change, rural environments will be subjected to more adverse and unsafe working conditions. Not only will farmers and foresters be directly at risk from the elements but they will be faced with increased risk if surprised by rapid changes in conditions while working in isolated rural areas and/or when attempting to salvage crops, protect property and save livestock from imminent and unpredictable weather conditions. In addition to the physical risks from falling trees or objects, drowning, burns, frostbite, etc. from severe weather conditions, there is also significant risk from toxic gases, explosions, extreme heat and fighting fires. It is not only the immediacy of risk that affects farmers and foresters but the aftermath clean-up can also be hazardous as farms in particular may contain ageing buildings and structures, machinery, chemicals and waste disposal. Such events could also result in emerging risks resulting from the increased exposure to biological agents and bioaerosols (such as excessive moisture and mould) that could also affect human health. Debris from wind damage is one of the most hazardous operations in forestry, which requires expert knowledge in managing the situation, competence and operational skills. The clean up after a flood can cause risky operations that need caution, knowledge and high operational skills.
Firstly, in terms of workplace accidents, a number of studies point to a link between extreme ambient temperatures and increased risk of occupational injuries. According to Kjellstrom et al. exposure to high temperatures can lead to physiological and psychological changes associated with heat strain, which in turn can decrease workers’ performance and lead to impaired concentration, increased distractibility, and fatigue. In addition to the increased likelihood of accidents, heat is a major health risk for workers working outside. It can cause dehydration, heat exhaustion and heatstroke and can even result in loss of consciousness and heart attacks in extreme circumstances. Older workers are also more vulnerable to such risks and considering that a third of EU farmers are over 65, this also increases the severity of risk for the EU farming population. California has even published a heat illness prevention standard for outdoor work.
One of the OSH consequences of climate change and increased heat will be the likely increase in night time work or in early morning/late evening working. California has recently brought in a law on night work which applies to agricultural workers who harvest, operate vehicles, and carry out other tasks between sunset and sunrise. The law focuses primarily on workplace hazards caused by poor visibility.
Also the use of PPE in extreme heat conditions is particularly challenging, especially in forestry where it is difficult to wear for long periods during hot weather and adds to the effort and stress of the job. The PPE itself can contribute to heat stress factors and both farm and forestry workers have been observed frequently removing PPE in excessively hot conditions to alleviate heat stress. The integrity of the PPE may also be jeopardised in hot conditions through perspiration. Also, in forestry, the full PPE is seldom worn by non-professional foresters or by farmers who work sometimes in woody areas.
Solar UV exposure
Farmers and fishermen are among the workers at the highest risk of developing skin cancer since they are exposed to the sun on a daily basis. Foresters are also very much exposed to sun when working on open slopes and areas. Very high skin cancer rates have been reported in the United States in farmers and seasonal farm workers. Solar/UV exposure is known to be associated with various skin cancers, accelerated skin ageing, cataract of the lens of the eye and other eye diseases, and possibly has an adverse effect a person's ability to resist infectious diseases. The German Agricultural Social Insurance Organisation (SVLFG) has reported over 2,000 suspected cases in Germany per year and UV radiation skin cancer is also recognised as an occupational disease by German authorities. Most of these health concerns could be avoided by reducing exposure to solar UV. Although the exposure to UV radiation may also have benefits for health through the production of vitamin D in the skin and modulation of the immune function, it is essential to manage the benefits and adverse effects of sun light by increasing awareness and providing knowledge.
Animal and insect-borne disease and invasion of predatory species
In the European Union, there is increasing exposure to animal and insect-borne diseases spreading from neighbouring regions as mild winters encourage their spread. For example, tick-borne diseases (such as Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis) continue to spread from central and eastern Europe to the West, encouraged by milder winters. High temperatures in the summer of 2010 for example have been associated with the epidemic of West Nile Fever in south-eastern Europe and outbreaks have occurred as recently as the summer of 2020 in Spain. Although globalisation in trade and travel are often responsible for the importation of these viruses, climatic conditions strongly affect the efficiency of transmission in local settings. Increasing globalisation, and international travel (both passenger and freight) constitute a risk for farmers and foresters from both animal and plant species which ultimately find their way to the rural environment.
According to Schenker, exposures to inorganic (mineral) dusts among farmers and farm workers may be substantial. Respirable quartz exposures in agriculture commonly exceed industrial standards. Significant exposure to inorganic dust results in allergic diseases, specifically occupational asthma and hypersensitivity pneumonitis and if the dust contains crystalline silica can result in chronic lung disease and even lung cancer. These very high concentrations of inorganic dust are likely to explain some of the increase in chronic bronchitis reported in many studies of farmers. The highest dust exposures occur during soil preparation activities. Tractors pulling soil preparation equipment (e.g. ploughing, discing, planing) generate large dust clouds. The mixing of animal feedstuffs and feeding also exposes workers to organic dust and silo dust. Farmworkers can develop organic dust toxic syndrome, farmers’ lung disease, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory problems. A particularly hazardous activity is cleaning out silos containing animal feedstuffs since it combines work in confined spaces and exposure to organic dust. Dust exposures are most frequent in dry-climate farming regions. As the climate gets drier in Europe, there will be an increase in silicate dust exposure in farming. However, as tractor technological developments increase, improved cabin ventilation and even driverless tractors may offer benefits for worker protection. Drier conditions under climate change will also increase the amount of organic dust in the atmosphere on farms, though part of this risk could be counter-acted by drier conditions neutralising some of the risks associated with mouldy hay (i.e. farmer´s lung).
Rising temperatures are expected to increase the development and growth of pests and in consequence will likely increase the use of pesticides. Climate change may lead to more generations of pests per year, which – in combination with prolonged exposure to pesticides over longer growing seasons – may make pests more resistant to pesticides. According to Gatto et al., climate change will also likely result in changed use of pesticides in terms of higher amounts, doses and types of products applied and higher temperatures, and heat waves in particular, may also impact on workers' susceptibility to pesticide absorption.
Specific forestry related risks from climate change
Climate change will cause widespread forest destruction bringing droughts, insect invasions, fires and storms. In addition to the obvious drought, fires and extreme weather conditions, warming summer and winter temperatures are driving beetle population outbreaks in susceptible forests, and allowing them to persist in habitats previously constrained by cold temperatures. There has never been such large-scale death of trees due to bark beetle infestation and drought as there is at present.
In terms of OSH, this will lead to increased risk from cleaning up dying or damaged trees from drought or insect damage, fire or extreme weather. While falling branches and breaking trunks have already been major causes of accidents in the past, they increase drastically when the trees die, and particularly so in extreme weather and wind conditions. Also the behaviour of dead trees during felling is largely unpredictable. Clearing wind blow is one of the most hazardous operations in forestry. Only workers fully competent in felling, removing hung-up trees, debranching and cross-cutting stems under tension should be employed to work with windblown trees. Forestry work is also far more dangerous in mixed operations, where operators neither have the practical experience nor sufficient tools and supporting machinery (tractors, winches, remote felling wedges etc.).
The need for reforestation following the dying off of trees will bring another serious OSH challenge with increased risk of musculoskeletal disorders and increased risk from the use of manual tools, as mechanical reforestation will probably only be possible on a fraction of the reforested area.
Impact of other environmental measures on OSH in agriculture and forestry
Other environmental pressures affecting the agriculture sector include the EU´s commitment to reduce pesticide use through the EU´s Pesticides Sustainable Use Directive and the EC´s general move towards Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices. This has been reinforced by the ambitious pesticide reduction goals in the EU´s Farm to Fork strategy, aiming to reduce the use of pesticides by 50% before 2030. Concerning IPM practices (see above), we will need to assess whether the decreased use of pesticides could impact on the occupational health of farmers and foresters, such as musculoskeletal disorders (through an increase in manual weeding) and insect-borne diseases (owing to an increase in the volume of insects).
Labour market conditions and their impact on OSH
The agricultural workforce has several structural characteristics which strongly influence health and safety outcomes in the sector. The recent impact of COVID-19 has highlighted a number of occupational risks and increased public awareness about living and working conditions in the sector, particularly for seasonal and temporary workers.
Many of the labour market characteristics (high number of self-employed, temporary, seasonal, migrant, family workers, older workers, part-time work and pluri-activity) which all impact on the OSH conditions in the sector are difficult to remedy while the overall profitability of small farms (low income and food price margins) still remains unsolved. A number of farmers and foresters find it difficult to manage financially and they have limited hours in the day to focus on all the competing issues, meaning that OSH is usually low on their list of priorities. This lack of decent revenue and income for small farmers undermines inclusive and preventive management approaches, such as effective OSH management practices, and limits investment in new safer technologies, (OSH) training and skills development and decent salaries and working conditions for seasonal workers.
The self-employed, who are not covered by EU OSH Framework Directive, make up at least a third of EU farmers and foresters and although small farms and the self-employed have gradually declined in number over the years, they will continue to dominate the OSH agenda in farming and forestry. Many of their accidents and occupational health problems are not reported, meaning that the true extent of safety and health in the sector is officially unknown. Most self-employed farmers and foresters are not covered by OSH legislation, are not covered by inspection, their occupational accidents and ill-health are very rarely reported, have limited access to OSH resources and training and lack resources to invest in new, safer machinery.
Seasonal and temporary workers, many of whom are often migrants are also quite vulnerable in terms of the health and safety protection that they are afforded. Their temporality, linguistic and cultural issues all mean that they often do not have appropriate access to appropriate training, trade union representation and health surveillance. The COVID-19 crisis has illustrated this clearly with high-profile cases of seasonal workers being infected owing to inadequate living and working conditions.
The Part time nature of farming and forestry work, linked to a high degree of pluri-activity can result in long working hours and inadequate rest, for example during the harvesting season. Farms in Ireland where both farmer and spouse have off-farm employment have been identified as having a 3.44-fold increased risk among farm operators. In addition to the burden and demand on time of the farmer mentioned above, pluri-activity also brings with it incremental risks owing to cumulative risk factors from other sectors and activities.
There is a need to take into account certain gender aspects in occupational safety and health practices in the sector. The major part of accidents in farming is attributable to male farmers as men make up the majority of the agricultural workforce. However, a recent Finnish study indicates that the risk of injuries for male and female workers is virtually equal, given equal work time. Therefore, gender is an indicator of different work exposures in farming, rather than a risk factor for injury. A Scottish government report on women in agriculture has indicated that women sometimes take risks to prove they are as able to farm as men, often trying to disprove gender stereotypes, and resulting in increased health and safety risks. The same report also found that women farmers do not have the right equipment to farm safely (e.g. suitably sized protective clothing, equipment that requires less physical strength to operate safely) and that there was a need to plan farmyards for women farmers. These findings are in line with those of the EU-OSHA report on gender and OSH which highlights that work equipment, such as machinery and personal protective equipment (PPE) is still designed for the average-sized male worker and takes less account of the ergonomic needs of women. The gender-sensitive risk assessment proposed in Annex 3 of the EU-OSHA report would also go part of the way to meeting this need to plan farmyards for women farmers.
Little attention has been paid to the link between rural depopulation and occupational safety and health. In many rural areas there is probably limited access to rural health services, including OSH health monitoring, as well OSH advisory, training and support services. One Irish study has identified farmers’ reluctance to seek help in carrying out difficult tasks as a major accident and near-miss risk factor. Also, emergency response times in case of accidents are usually longer in rural areas. Likewise, national labour inspections are unlikely to be in the position to dedicate like-for-like resources for rural workers as for urban workers, not only because of the travel time needed but because of the low concentration of workers, making per capita inspection rates less efficient.
Food, energy and environmental demands and their impact on OSH
Farmers are increasingly having to adapt to societal trends in terms of food, energy and environmental demands. Food waste, changing consumption patterns and general societal demands are changing the nature of farming (organic food, GMO free, animal welfare and feed practices, reducing meat consumption and production, etc). These demands coupled with farmer bashing where farmers are held responsible for ethical and environmental aspects of farming are all adding to the number of stressors in the sector which are impacting significantly on the psychosocial conditions in farming today.
OSH considerations related to trade and economy
Global trade can propagate the movement of alien species, vectors and pests which can have novel or emerging impacts on farmer health if these species take hold amongst the local fauna and flora. For example, the spread of ash dieback disease and elm bark beetle have both resulted from international timber and tree movements. For this reason, containers with plants and trees are often heavily fumigated with pesticides, in itself creating a risk for operators, as well as those workers ultimately moving or handling the imported plants, trees and timber.
The working and labour conditions in countries exporting to the EU are also an area for consideration. Agricultural organisations have raised concern about weaker environmental and food safety standards for food imports and OSH standards in third countries can also be significantly lower. The EU Farm to Fork Strategy aims to address environmental and food standards in food imports and it would be important to include the implementation of ILO working conditions standards within this concept.
Farmers are increasingly exposed to financial pressures owing to their reduced influence in the food value chain, weakened bargaining power against large retailers and decreasing prices for agricultural produce and lower profit margins. These increasing financial pressures in farming today are often cited by many farmers amongst the many stressors to which they are subjected and which impact on their psychosocial health and stress levels.
The EU Farm to Fork Strategy has recognised the importance of the EU Pillar of Social Rights and its application to the sector, however, there is still a major social-economic deficit in farming today, owing to the marginal profitability and income for many small farmers (who make up the majority of farmers) undermining the social sustainability of farming and forestry. This socio-economic deficit affects the ability of the sector to fully embrace and manage the growing trends, such as digitalisation, climate change, society pressures and labour market developments and is very much linked to the poor level of occupational health and safety protection in the sector.
In order to successfully tackle future OSH challenges in the sector, it would be important to address the existing, structural and future OSH issues in a comprehensive and cohesive manner:
- lack of investment in and uptake of new smart and safer technologies and machinery;
- a growing number of climate change related risks and occupational health challenges;
- lack of transparent and wholly inaccurate occupational accident and ill-health reporting, particularly for the self-employed;
- no clear OSH regulatory framework to protect farmers and foresters and manage OSH, particularly for the self-employed;
- a lack of a prevention culture (farmers and foresters tend to give low priority to OSH over other competing issues) as well as a strong skills and training deficit, particularly in OSH;
- widespread atypical, and sometimes irregular, employment practices;
- lack of appropriate labour inspection resources to combat undeclared work and ensure adequate protection for seasonal and migrant workers in the sector;
- insufficient farm income and quality management time with which to prioritise OSH issues, particularly for small and family farmers.
Recommendations for OSH measures
- Integrate OSH considerations into the development and design of new digital, precision and smart farming technologies (and adapt farm layouts);
- adapt risk assessment techniques and health and safety training to new technologies, such as robots and cobots, Artificial Intelligence (AI), etc.;
- actively encourage the use of technology to enhance safety through the use of smart sensors, IoT, AI and smart PPE;
- adapt risk assessment, workplace design and awareness raising initiatives to climate change circumstances, with risk assessments in particular needing to be responsive to sometimes extreme environmental conditions from one moment of the year to another;
- improve the prevention culture in the sector, in line with international initiatives such as SACURIMA and ISSA´s Prevention Zero, by establishing a specific sectoral prevention campaign or European Network for agriculture safety and health;
- carry out specific OSH research on issues related to safety and health in agriculture (e.g. on quad safety, tractor over-turns, safety-related technologies to prevent farm machinery accidents and smart PPE.
OSH related policy recommendations
- include more transparent, comprehensive and consistent data on the self-employed in Eurostat OSH reporting for forestry and agriculture and tackle other OSH under-reporting challenges in the sector;
- promote ratification into national law of the ILO Convention on Agriculture (and its Annex on the self-employed) in order to provide a minimum legal framework for governing safety and health in the sector, particularly concerning the self-employed;
- include agricultural and forestry sector related activities in the 2021-2027 EU OSH Strategy and EU-OSHA work programmes;
- include activities on OSH and well-being in agriculture and forestry in the Horizon Europe programme;
- establish a link between EU OSH legislation and Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) conditionality (as the position of agricultural employers and workers organisations may differ on this point, this should be negotiated);
- encourage Member States to include safety measures and training under Pillar II of their CAP plans (CAP Pillar II Article 15 of Regulation 1305/2013 includes training and advice on occupational safety standards or safety standards linked to the farm as eligible for funding when included in national CAP plans);
- consider establishing a rebate scheme for retro-fitting roll-over protection (ROPS) systems (and seatbelts) which have been used in the USA and Australia in view of the significant number of deaths and injuries resulting from the overturn of farm vehicles (in particular tractors and in some countries quads and similar vehicles).
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