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November 14, 2008

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Health and safety in agriculture

After construction, the agriculture sector has the worst record for work-related fatalities, and one of the worst for occupational ill health and injury. Focusing on the latter, Chris Ide provides an overview of some of the many health hazards in the sector, and the steps that can be taken to either eliminate or control them.

One of the more remarkable findings in the 1851 census of Great Britain was that, for the first time, the majority of the population were urban dwellers.1 This was one of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, a rather imprecise term, which described the translation of the British economy from its base in subsistence agriculture to one whose wealth was generated by manufacture and commerce. It led to Britain being dubbed ‘the workshop of the world’ — a distinction that did not even begin to be seriously challenged until the last decade, or so of the 19th century. These changes were both paralleled and preceded by an agricultural revolution, which increased productivity of the land and created a surplus population, which had no alternative but to emigrate either to the cities, or abroad, if they were to survive.

This relentless depletion of the countryside population has continued, to the point where, in 2006, those employed in agriculture, hunting and forestry represented just 0.8 per cent of the total working population of about 27 million.2 This small population (around 220,000 people) is exposed to a high rate of accidents, a disproportionate number of which end fatally. In 2005-06, employees and the self-employed in the agricultural and forestry sector accounted for 33 of the 212 work-related fatal injuries reported to the Health and Safety Executive.3 This is a terrible toll, and many words have been, and could still be, written on the whys and wherefores, and what to do about it, but for now, I will concentrate on health problems and how to tackle them.

Fresh air — friend or foe?

Most people would assume that working in the fresh air would be conducive to good health. Back in 1832, Charles Turner Thackrah certainly believed this to be the case; he described husbandmen (farmers) as “well-known to be generally healthy… seldom suffer serious injury … dyspeptic and nervous disorders

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