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ILO warns on farm safety Agriculture mortality rates remain high Pesticides pose major health risks to global workforce


Press release | 22 October 1997


GENEVA (ILO News) ­ Workers in agriculture run at least twice the risk of dying on the job as workers in other sectors according to the Assistant Director General of the International Labour Office, Mr. Ali Taqi, who estimates that at least 170,000 agricultural workers are killed each year.

In remarks prepared for an international meeting of farm safety and health experts, which opens in Itasca, Illinois (USA) tomorrow, he said that millions more of the world's 1.3 billion agricultural workers are seriously injured in workplace accidents involving machinery, or poisoned by pesticides and other agro-chemicals. The meeting is organised by the US's National Safety Council with the cooperation of ILO, the principal United Nations agency for workplace issues.

In addition, Mr. Taqi warned that agriculture mortality rates have remained consistently high in the last decade in contrast to other dangerous occupations, such as mining and construction, where fatal accident rates have decreased.

He said that the real picture of occupational safety and health for farm workers is likely to be worse than official statistics indicate due to the widespread under-reporting of deaths and injuries worldwide. The fatality rate, for example, may be as much as one-third higher than reported.

He said that workers in developing countries are at especially high risk due to inadequate education, training and safety systems. But even in developed countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States agriculture ranks consistently among the most hazardous industries. In the US, for example, farmers and farm workers comprise only 3% of the workforce, but they account for nearly 8% of all work-related accidents. In Italy 9.7% of workers are in agricultural production, but they account for 28.7% of accidents.

Though agriculture accounts on average for 9% of the workforce in most industrialized countries, almost one half of the world's total workforce remains involved in agricultural production, with the largest concentrations in developing countries. In Eastern Europe 20% of all workers are in agriculture and in Latin America 25%. About 63% of all workers in Africa and 62% of all workers in Asia are in agriculture, compared to only 5.2% in the European Union.

Mr. Taqi pointed out that "significantly the share of women in agricultural employment worldwide is growing, mainly due to the migration of men to urban centres seeking better opportunities, to the point where women now account for some 43% of the total workforce in agriculture."

He said child labour is pervasive in agriculture both in small and large commercial farms. According to ILO estimates in a number of developing countries, the rate of economically active children between the ages 5 to 14 is 10% of the total economically active population. Seventy per cent of these working children are engaged in agriculture. Although many of them work in family holdings, large numbers do full-time, heavy work on commercial farms and plantations, performing such tasks as cutting sugar cane, picking cotton and harvesting fruits and vegetables.

Not all rules apply to agriculture

The ILO official explained that although conditions vary greatly from country to country, agriculture tends to be excluded from the provisions of many national labour laws and it is not subject to any comprehensive international standard. Where regulations exist, they are often sporadically applied because effective observance is poor due to inadequate legal provisions, low levels of unionization among workers and insufficient labour inspection.

In addition to legislative shortcomings, he cited some of the disadvantages common to most agricultural work, as including:

  • the use of multiple complex technologies applied in very dissimilar environments, from highly mechanized commercial agriculture to intensive small-scale subsistence agriculture, which make differences in working methods far more marked than those of other industrial sectors.
  • dispersal of the workforce in remote rural areas where public and health services and communications systems are often inadequate or inferior to those in urban areas;
  • the wide variety of jobs performed by agricultural workers, especially in small-scale farming, often using inadequate equipment plus lack of information and training;
  • environmental factors play a determinant role, working in the open air in all types of weather, making it difficult to modify working conditions (as for example when sudden gusts of wind arise during the application of pesticides, or rainstorms during harvesting);
  • the inadequate application of safety technologies in agriculture compared with industry.

Dangers to life and limb

The main health risks, Mr. Taqi said, derive from work with cutting tools and machinery (such as tractors and harvesters) and exposure to pesticides and other agrochemicals. Over one third of the deaths in farm occupations occurred in tractor-related incidents.

He cited a study carried out by the Brazilian Institute on Occupational Safety and Health showed that nearly 40% of the total injuries reported were due to manual tools, 88% of which were cutting tools and 12% machinery. Among the accidents provoked by machinery, 38% involved tractors.

In Chile, the labour inspectorate reported in 1993 that injuries due to machinery and tools accounted for over one third of all cases of occupational injury.

In the US, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health identified machinery-related accidents as the second leading cause of traumatic occupational fatalities. Tractors had both the highest frequency and fatality rates of all machinery types, followed by harvesting machinery and power tools.

The US survey also showed that male workers are far more likely to be victims of machinery-related occupational fatalities than female workers, with males accounting for 98% of the casualties. Younger workers, aged 25 to 34 years, experienced the greatest number of machinery-related fatalities.

Pesticide peril

The ILO representative stressed that exposure to pesticides and agrochemicals constitutes one of the major risks faced by farm workers, accounting in some countries for as much as 14% of all occupational injuries in the agricultural sector and 10% of all fatal injuries.

Despite deficiencies in national reporting systems which make data on pesticide poisonings notoriously under-estimated, according to Mr. Taqi, developing countries consume more than 20% of the world production of agrochemicals, which are responsible for approximately 70% of the total cases of acute poisoning in the working population, i.e. more than 1.1 million cases.

The World Health Organization, another UN agency, estimates the total cases of pesticide poisoning worldwide at between 2 and 5 million workers each year, of which 40,000 are fatal.

Mr. Taqi acknowledged that the true extent of pesticide poisoning is difficult to document, but it is a frequent occupational hazard for farm workers in developed countries and widespread in developing countries whose economies are heavily agricultural and export-oriented. He said that the situation in Central America, where ILO operates a number of technical cooperation programmes, is illustrative but by no means exceptional.

During the 1980s the importation and use of agrochemicals in the Central American region reached an annual average of 53,600 tons. Well over 2,000 cases of acute poisoning were reported each year from countries in the region.

In Costa Rica, where an extensive study of agrochemical use was carried out, as much as 4 kg of pesticide per capita was used annually during the last decade, eight times the 0.5 kg average for the whole world population. In 1986, Costa Rica's National Social Security Institute received a total of 1,880 reports of acute poisoning, dermal and eye injuries due to pesticide exposure. In the period from 1980-86, the official annual pesticide poisoning rate for the total wage earning population was 5.3 per 100,000 workers and the average annual fatality rate was 1.7 per 100,000 compared with 0.3 per 100,000 in the US during the 1980s. More than half of the victims (56.5%) were agricultural workers, with field workers accounting for 90% of the occupational poisonings, most of which occurred during the spraying of fields.

Experience elsewhere in Central America illustrates the very real difficulty of getting an accurate picture of the levels of pesticide poisonings due to under-reporting.


In Panama, for example, data from the Ministry of Health shows the rate of intoxication due to pesticide exposure at 5.6 per 100,000 in 1995. However estimates from the Social Security Institute indicate that the rate in 1995 should have been 3,000 per 100,000. Taking into account that the SSI covers only 8.8% of agricultural workers, and the total number of occupational accidents registered in 1994 was 3.991, the expected number would be 9.651 if the total number of economically active agricultural workers in the country had been considered.

In Guatemala, a study based on data from the Ministry of Health and the Social Security Administration showed that between 1986 and 1990 there were 5,571 cases of intoxication from pesticides. In 1994, 237 cases of pesticide poisoning were registered by the Social Security Institute, with only 3 occupational fatalities. However, a Ministry of Health survey on the use of pesticides concluded that it was not possible to have an accurate estimation of the number of intoxications from occupational exposure, due to under-reporting.

The ILO spokesman said that in countries throughout the world, agricultural workers are often excluded from any employment injury benefit or insurance scheme. Administrative machinery for collecting injury records is broadly insufficient, thus reducing the incentive to report injuries or provide resources for compensation.

Since 1993, the ILO has sought to work with authorities and representatives of employers and workers in Central America in order to establish national policies on occupational safety and health in agriculture for the protection of agricultural workers' safety and health, the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases in agriculture and the protection of the environment. The project strategy includes the up-dating of legislation, the development of preventive health surveillance systems, improved information and training, and an environmental protection approach to deal with agrochemicals.

Mr. Taqi cited the forthcoming ILO Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety as an important contribution to public information about farming hazards and their prevention.

Mr. Taqi said that ILO participation in the National Safety Council programme was part of an ongoing effort to increase international cooperation in the effort to improve working conditions of farm worker and strengthen international standards in the sector. The International Conference on Occupational Health and Safety in Agriculture, which is being held in Itasca, Illinois from 22 to 25 October, is sponsored by the US National Safety Council and its new training centre on agricultural safety NECAS, in Peosta Iowa.