Occupational health and safety promotion are often not included in the management systems of many farming operations. However, illness and injuries can cost serious economic, physical, and emotional health issues that can deter from an efficient and enjoyable production system and home life. In this article, I will list several categories of health and safety issues for workers, and very briefly discuss how to prevent them. A subsequent article will deal in more depth on prevention of selected health and safety issues.
Gases and Needle Sticks
In a previous article for pig333, I discussed the hazards of gases that are produced from the anaerobic digestion of manure, and needle sticks.
Respiratory System Illness risks
Respiratory problems are perhaps the most important health risk for pork producers. I personally developed such problems as a swine veterinarian and that is what made me shift from a daily practicing veterinarian to a professor who researches, writes, and teaches about health of pork production workers.
The most common agent of concern causing respiratory illness is the dust inside swine buildings. The dust contains many potentially hazardous substances, but the most common hazard is endotoxin. This substance originates from the cell wall of certain bacteria in the dust. Endotoxin is a very irritating and inflammatory substance. High exposures to this dust may occur when sorting and loading pigs or other circumstances that stir up an unusual amount of dust. Symptoms in workers of heavy exposure to endotoxin may appear like the flu, 4 – 6 hours after beginning work. More specific symptoms include headache, cough, muscle aches and pains, fever, and just feeling bad and tired. Most people get over these symptoms in 24 - 48 hours, but they may have recurrent illnesses with subsequent exposures. This condition is called Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome (ODTS). These illnesses do not seem to have long term problems, but certainly can make workers sick for a couple of days.
Long term exposures to usual concentrations of dust, (e.g. working 2 or more hours per day every day for 6 years or so) can result in bronchitis (irritation of the airways resulting in chronic cough and thick sputum production). A more serious concern may occur separately or simultaneously with bronchitis, called non-allergic asthma. This condition is caused by inflammation resulting in the airways to narrow down, making it difficult to breath. Wheezing and chest tightness may be noticed. These conditions will not go away on their own. The symptoms may be treated with medicines for a short term but protection by reducing the amount of dust in the air, and properly wearing an appropriate dust mask will help to prevent and reduce the symptoms.
Note that power washing inside a building will stir up a lot of dust in the air, exposing the person (if not protected with a dust/mist mask) to very high levels of endotoxin.
Noise levels in production units, particularly tasks in sow units (gestation, farrowing, and nursery areas) and performing tasks such as blood sampling can be very high. I have measured such sound levels, and they are high enough to cause loss of hearing (Noise levels above 85 dBA). The figure below provides several tasks and the measured (or estimated) sound levels in swine production. We have measured hearing acuity in swine producers and other farmers, and we have found about 33% have noise induced hearing loss. Hearing loss is a sense that you will never get back. However, you can prevent further loss by taking measures to reduce the noise, and wearing hearing protection in those noisy sow units.
There are many pharmaceuticals that are used in pork production today. The ones I think most hazardous are Prostaglandins and Oxytocin. Exposure to a pregnant woman to either of these products can cause an abortion. It is my recommendation that pregnant women should not handle these products. Why take the chance?
Antibiotics of course are used in pork production. In the EU, and the U.S., use of antibiotics at lower than therapeutic levels for growth promotion is either illegal or deterred by regulations or manufactures agreements. However, this may not be the case in other countries. Regarding possible health risks to workers, they may develop allergies to antibiotics as they are mixed in feed or water. They may cause skin or respiratory problems. Also, prolonged administration of antibiotics in a given environment can result in resistant bacteria which result in infections that are difficult to treat in workers, as well as the pigs. One recent example of such is methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Our research has shown that a high percentage of pigs and workers in swine units carry this organism, that can lead to resistant infections.
Behavioral health is an important issue around agricultural production in most countries, and certainly in pork production. The reasons primarily are stress that evolves from uncertain economic outcomes of the operation. Agricultural commodities production survives in a “bumpy” competitive global market that keeps prices for pork relatively low, compared to the ever increasing input costs.
Stress can also be added with disease outbreaks, breakdown of equipment, natural disasters (high winds, fire etc.) and labor issues. Family and community issues may add to the stress load. Long term stress can lead to depression. Long term untreated depression can lead to poor farm management, family problems, and even suicide. Recognition of and management of stress is essential to prevent the worse problem of depression. A recent study by our group has shown that farmers have a much higher risk of suicide that the general population. (see the graph comparing farmer suicides compared to the general population).
People and pigs may share several infectious agents. Influenza, Methicillin resistant streptococcus aureus (previously mentioned), Streptococcus suis, and leptospirosis are just a few of the infections that workers may share with their pigs.
All of the risks mentioned above are either preventable or at least amenable to lowering the risk. In a follow-on article, I will outline common and practical risk management tools to keep producers and their employees alive and well in pork production.
Please note the following articles for further information on the subjects above:
- In general the text book: Agricultural Medicine: Rural Occupational Health, Safety and Prevention, Kelley Donham and Anders Thelin, 2016, Wiley and Sons.
- Respiratory risks in pork producers
- Noise induced hearing loss:
- Mental/behavioral health in farmers:
- Onwuamze, OE, Paradiso, S, Peek-Asa, Donham, K, Rautiainen, RH. Modifiable risk factors for depressed mood among farmers. Onwuamze et. al. Am J Clin Psychiatry, 25(2): 83-90, 2013.
- Trends and Characteristics of Occupational Suicide and Homicide in Farmers and Agricultural Workers, 1992 – 2010. J. Rural Health (2017) doi:1111/jrh.12245