Even though farmworkers face serious hazards on the job and work in one of the most dangerous industries in the country, most young farmworkers in a recent study rated their work safety climate as “poor.” In fact, more than a third of those surveyed said their managers were only interested in getting the job done as quickly as possible.
Recently published in the American Journal of Public Health, the study was designed to capture perceptions of work safety climates on North Carolina farms that employ children and teens and the association with occupational safety and injuries. In partnering with organizations that provide health, social and educational services to farmworkers and their families, the study researchers were eventually able to survey 87 youth farmworkers between ages 10 and 17, the great majority of whom were Hispanic. (This may come as a surprise for some readers, but child labor is not completely illegal in the U.S. The 1938 federal law that outlawed most forms of child labor included an exemption for the agricultural sector, which can still employ children. Some estimates put U.S. youth farmworker numbers as high as 500,000.) The study found that while the majority of youth workers interviewed said that work safety practices were very important to management, 38 percent said supervisors were only interested in “doing the job quickly and cheaply.”
The study noted that youth farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to workplace dangers and face a variety of hazards on the job, such as sharp tools, heat exposure, pesticides, dangerous machinery and poisonous plants. Study authors Gregory Kearney, Guadalupe Rodriguez, Sara Quandt, Justin Arcury and Thomas Arcury write:
Undoubtedly, agriculture is an important industry that requires a significant labor force to maintain its sustainability. However, decisions to improve policies to protect and ensure the safety of youths working in one of the most hazardous industries is justified. The concept of work safety climate can play an important role in developing workplace interventions to reduce the incidence and severity of injuries and improving the safety of workers.
In gathering responses on work safety climate, which describes workers’ perceptions of how employers value workplace safety, about 70 percent agreed that “work safety practices were very important to management.” Also, about 40 percent agreed that they “were made aware of dangerous work practices or conditions,” about a quarter said they were regularly praised for safe work practices and about 40 percent received safety instructions when hired. However, only about 8 percent of study participants said they attended regular safety meetings and only about 32 percent said proper safety equipment was always available. About 55 percent responded that taking risks was not a part of their jobs.
When it came to occupational injuries, 23 percent of the interviewed youth said the possibility of experiencing a work-related injury was “very likely” in the following year. While nearly 21 percent said their supervisors did as much as possible to ensure safety, more than 41 percent said supervisors could do more to ensure a safe working environment. In the 12 months previous to being interviewed, 54 percent of the youth farmworkers experienced musculoskeletal pain and nearly 61 percent experienced some type of trauma, the most common being a cut, followed by burn and eye injury. More than 72 percent of those interviewed reported a skin injury, such as sunburn.
The researchers found that the types of personal protective equipment most commonly used were hats, followed by gloves, rain suits, bandanas and plastic trash bags. Just 3.5 percent reported wearing a protective suit. In measuring potential pesticide exposure risks, the study found that 54 percent of the youth worked in wet shoes, nearly 52 percent worked in wet clothes and more than 41 percent wore short-sleeved shirts. Also, 15 percent wore work clothes that hadn’t been washed and more than 42 percent did not wash their hands while at work (hand-washing can reduce pesticide exposure risk). They study authors noted that “when handled wet, dermal absorption of pesticides and nicotine can occur, resulting in illness such as green tobacco sickness and cognitive and behavioral dysfunction.”
Overall, the study found an association between perceptions about work safety climate and the practice of safe behaviors while on the job.
The study authors write: “Additional research on how work safety climate has an impact on occupational behavior and health among youth agricultural workers is an area that is warranted and needs increased attention.”
To request a full copy of the youth farmworker study, visit the American Journal of Public Health.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.