This year marks the 10th annual Farm Safety Week, run by the Farm Safety Foundation (Yellow Wellies). Taking place from 18-22 July 2022, each day focusses on a different theme to draw attention to some of the key safety issues affecting agriculture today. This year, it includes respiratory health, and mental health awareness for those working in the industry.
We have previously commented on the issue of poor mental health in farming, and how this was identified by the vast majority of farmers under 40 as the biggest danger to the industry in a survey last year. In addition, with the HSE focussing on lung health, those in agriculture should be aware of the potential risk not only of immediate injuries, but also of the impact their work may have on employees' long term respiratory health.
While initiatives, guidance, and strategies continue to be developed to improve safety in the sector (of which Farm Safety Week is one), agriculture remains one of the most dangerous industries in the UK. In the year 2021/22, 123 workers were killed in work-related accidents. Of these, 22 (18%) were in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing sector; which equalled the number of deaths in the Manufacturing industry. Only the Construction sector was higher (30 deaths, 24%).
However, given the focus is often on physical injuries the statistics relating to occupational illness, and in particular lung disease, may be overlooked. The HSE estimates around 12,000 lung disease deaths in the UK each year, are linked to the individual's past exposure to hazardous substances at work. In agriculture, there may be a number of tasks which give rise to dust, or involve substances hazardous to health; and, a number of conditions which can be caused as a result.
Respiratory Illness in Agriculture
There are specific lung conditions that are prevalent in the agricultural sector. Because of the nature of the environment, there a number of sources of exposure to both dust and vapours. In particular, dusts may contain organic and inorganic material or bacteria which might not be found in other industries.
A well-known condition is "farmer's lung" which is an allergic disease from exposure to dust from mouldy crops. Short-term exposure to dusts might cause irritation of the nose, throat and lungs, rhinitis or conjunctivitis, whereas long-term exposure can result in chronic bronchitis, more serious chest or lung conditions and most commonly, asthma. The HSE has advised that the most common cause of asthma amongst agricultural workers is due to exposure to dusts such as grain, soil, bedding, animal feed and chemicals.
There is considerable guidance available about how to manage the risk of exposing agricultural workers to dust that may harm their health. In particular, there is a duty on employers to carry out health surveillance on workers who may be exposed to grain, poultry or other agricultural dusts than contain asthmagens. Health surveillance can be carried out by an occupational health professional or by ensuring workers having regular check-ups with a doctor. The appropriate health surveillance will depend on the type of exposure.
Employers also have a duty to mitigate the risk of dust exposure for workers as far as reasonably practicable. There are a number of measures that can be taken such as using suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE), ensuring there is adequate ventilation and using machinery or equipment that contains dust as far as possible.
Exposure to dust through food manufacturing is also relevant to agricultural sectors where workers may be exposed to flour and food enzymes which can cause occupational asthma.
Farm Safety Week will undoubtedly provide more information for those operating in the sector around the risk of respiratory illness and guidance on what steps to take to minimise that risk.