The federal agencies that track workplace hazards are a bit off when it comes to reporting injuries and illnesses of U.S. agricultural workers and farmers. In fact, they undercount these injuries by as much as 77%, according from a study from the University of California-Davis.
J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences and researcher with the UC Davis Center for Healthcare Policy and Research, says the study confirms a long-held belief that government reports routinely and dramatically undercount ag industries and illnesses.
"Whatever anyone might have assumed about gaps in government statistics for agriculture, our study shows that the problem is actually about three times bigger than previously suspected," he says.
The undercount has several underlying causes. Some are institutional and others are behavioral, Leigh says. An example of an institutional cause is that the government focuses on mid- to large-size farms, which only accounts for around half of farm employment in the U.S. Groups like the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII) also struggle to properly count seasonal and part-time employees. These institutional reasons explain nearly half of the undercounted injuries, according to the study.
The study attributes the rest of the undercounted injuries to behavioral reasons. In an article that appeared in the journal Annals of Epidemiology, "incentives for underreporting for employers may include a desire to reduce workers’ compensation insurance premiums, whereas employees may fear that reporting an injury may jeopardize their employment or may not be aware that they should report an injury."
In total, the researchers estimated that SOII missed 73.7% of crop farm cases and 81.9% of animal farm cases for an average of 77.6% for all of agriculture. Leigh says more accurate injury counts could have great benefits in improving how safety and prevention efforts are focused.
"Agriculture is a major driver of economic wealth as well as one of the most hazardous employment environments in the nation," he says. "It could be an even more powerful economic force if we accurately counted and addressed the causes of harm to agricultural workers and farmers."