Review of safety programs for nation’s deadliest jobs receives top marks

Staff Writer
Devils Lake Journal
Paul Gunderson

Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program shown to reduce

child deaths and injuries on U.S. farms, among other successes.

An independent five-year review by members of the National Academies of Science has given the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program (AgFF) the highest score for relevance, 5 out of 5, and a 4 out of 5 for impact on worker safety and health. These are among the highest scores ever awarded to a government program of its kind.

Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing occupations are the most dangerous in the United States, with a fatality rate eight times higher than all other U.S. industries combined—twice as great as in mining or transportation; two-and-one half times greater than construction. In 2011, 557 workers died and tens of thousands were injured while doing farm, forestry or fishing work at a cost of $4 billion in direct and indirect costs.

“The NIOSH Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program is the most significant federal initiative today to seek to secure a safe workplace for agricultural workers,” says Paul Gunderson, Ph.D., director of the Dakota Precision Agriculture Center and lead reviewer. “Our evaluation panel found that the program conducts high priority, sound research.”  

The NIOSH AgFF Program consists of nine regional Centers for Agricultural Disease and Injury Research, Education, and Prevention and one national center to address children’s farm safety and health.

The mandate of the AgFF Program is to reduce work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths in the United States among workers in the agriculture, forestry and commercial fishing industries. Work is conducted at relatively minimal cost. In 2012, nearly $22 million was distributed among the regional centers. The AgFF Program has seen an overall reduction in injuries and deaths in agriculture, forestry and fishing since its inception in 1990. Deaths have decreased 40%, from 931 in 1992 to 557 in 2011.

“In our current environment of budget austerity, this is an example of a relatively low-cost program that is making a significant impact on public safety and at the same time saving farmers, insurers and government considerable costs related to injury and damage,’ says John May, M.D., director of the Northeast Center for Agricultural Health.

Life-saving programs cited by the review committee include:

Reduction of child deaths and injuries on U.S. farms. More than 1 million young people (under age 20) work on U.S. farms and ranches. More than half perform farm work or chores. Research conducted and interventions implemented by the National Center for Children’s Farm Safety and Health, an AgFF Center, as well as other private and public organizations resulted in a 59% decrease in the rate of childhood agricultural injuries between 1998 and 2008.

AgFF research has shown that the use of tractor rollbar protective structures (ROPS) and seatbelts can prevent 99% of overturn deaths. Its New York program has increased the installation of ROPS by 10-fold and recorded more than 100 overturns and accidents with no injuries among farmers who installed ROPS.

The Commercial Fishing Safety Research & Design Program developed the award-winning E-stop for hydraulic machinery, equipment that previously caused severe injuries and fatalities on fishing vessels. This innovation now saves lives.

In 2011, the NIOSH AgFF Program was named one of the "Ten Great Public Health Achievements" for 2001-2010 by the CDC in part because of the drastic reduction in deaths for Bering Sea crab fisherman, 770 deaths per 100,000 workers to 260 deaths.

Scientists who have conducted AgFF research and directors of the nine centers from throughout the United States will convene in D.C. this week to request that Congress maintain the NIOSH budget at the $22 million level as part of the Fiscal Year 2014 Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations bill.

“There is no other program of its kind; this is the organization that protects forestry workers, fishermen and farmers, the people who produce food for all of us,” Dr. Gunderson says. “Eighty-five percent of agricultural worksites are exempt from workplace safety standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA); they are excluded from the …National Labor Relations Act. Even today, federal agencies are absolutely prohibited from collecting information about non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses on the vast majority of agricultural worksites.”

The National Academies of Science review committee was comprised of experts from industry, government, labor, academia, medicine, and public health. The assessment was led by Dr. Paul D. Gunderson. The period covered by the review was 2007 through May 2012.

The NIOSH AgFF Centers are located in Davis, Calif,; Fort Collins, Colo.; Iowa City, Iowa; San Antonio, Texas; Lexington, Ky.; Cooperstown, N.Y.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Marshfield, Wis.; Omaha, Neb.; and Seattle, Wash.