Farm work has always been one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Government statistics show it clearly, and the people doing the work can attest, too.
But new research from the University of California-Davis suggests that it's a much bigger problem than the federal government recognizes. The health problems faced by agricultural workers are the most undercounted of any industry in the U.S., they say.
Federal agencies responsible for tracking farm injuries and illnesses fail to report 77 percent of the physical calamities that befall farmers and their workers, according to a study published in April in the Annals of Epidemiology.
While the study confirms what watchdogs and researchers have long maintained about a lack of accuracy in government statistics on nonfatal occupational hazards, the difference between what's happening in the fields and what the government reports was still very surprising, says lead researcher Paul Leigh, a UC-Davis professor of public health sciences.
"I was expecting ... maybe 50 percent, maybe 60 percent at the outside. But to have the median estimate as 77 percent — I about fell off my chair," he says. "Quite the eye-popping number."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 19,700 injuries and illnesses among those working in crop production in 2011, compared to the 74,932 found by the UC-Davis research, a 74 percent difference. In livestock work, the government reported 12,300 in 2011, while the UC-Davis team said 68,504 were hurt in that line of work, an 82 percent difference.
So what explains the difference in the numbers? The government relies solely on one dataset — the Bureau of Labor Statistics's Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. The researchers, meanwhile, also looked at several other agencies' surveys, including the National Agricultural Workers Survey and the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Leigh says. The government's numbers were also lower because it focuses on larger farms and excludes small, family-owned operations, and because of the part-time and migratory nature of ag workers, Leigh says.
The other two problems in under-counting are negligence by employers who fail to send in the reports and the large number of undocumented ag workers. One recent government survey found that about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were undocumented, with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico.
Deportation is the chief fear of immigrants who fail to report their injuries to a government agency. But another concern is losing every connection to their livelihood, says Suzanne Gladney, founder of the Migrant Farmworkers Project, a group located an hour east of Kansas City, Mo.
The apple and peach pickers who get assistance from the project are often brought to the area either by a family member or a crew leader, who set them up with their job, housing and transportation, Gladney says.
But if they report an eye injury or a fall from a ladder — the most common hazards for the fruit pickers — everyone in the network could lose their jobs, she says.
"If you do something that irritates somebody, your whole system starts to fall apart," Gladney says. "So you're really encouraged against being a troublemaker or wave-maker of any kind."
Injuries are as varied as the work — from using a machine or stooping in a field to cut crops. Leigh says the researchers used conservative figures, much like the government, so estimates for job-related cancers, chronic pulmonary disease or circulatory diseases, which may be prevalent, were not included.
Other conditions that weren't counted are asthma from grain dust or neurological problems from long-term exposure to pesticides and chemicals. That's because they won't be diagnosed for 10 or 20 years, he says.
Ultimately, the discrepancy in counting injuries can hinder agriculture as a driver of the economy, Leigh says, by passing costs on to government social programs and charity care, while also limiting the focus on safety and prevention efforts.
"[Agriculture] could be an even more powerful economic force if we accurately counted and addressed the causes of harm to agricultural workers and farmers," he says.
Peggy Lowe is a reporter for Harvest Public Media.