Agricultural Work

July 28, 2011

Approximately 22,200 women in the United States are employed in agriculture as farm owners, managers, workers, and in other related occupations. Although women employed in agriculture represent a small portion of the total agricultural workforce—less than 15%—this number underestimates the contribution of women to agricultural productivity. Women contribute untold hours of unpaid work on farms.

As informal and formal workers on farms, women are exposed to a multitude of biological, chemical, physical, and mechanical hazards. Occupational diseases in women working on farms will go undiagnosed if a physician assumes she does not work or if a physician is unfamiliar with occupational diseases. Hazards encountered on farms include heavy equipment; enclosed spaces such as silos, grain bins, and manure storage structures; toxic and irritant gases and dusts including carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, anhydrous ammonia, pesticides, endotoxins, fungi, and molds; weather extremes; and animals. Respiratory diseases, traumatic injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, noise-induced hearing loss, skin disorders, chemical poisoning, infectious diseases, cancer, infertility, low birthweight, birth defects, and Parkinson’s disease are associated with hazards encountered in agriculture.

Due to the fact that women are often employed off the farm, their contribution to farm work may put them at higher risk of injuries due to fatigue. In addition, since the work changes seasonally and is often done under time pressure, women are likely to be at a high risk of injury comparable to new workers in other occupational settings. Inexperience and lack of familiarity with equipment often leads to work-related injuries. Equipment designed for an average male may increase ergonomic strain for women and result in increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries.

Women who have been exposed to agricultural chemicals have been found to have excesses of nonHodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, soft tissue sarcoma, and cancers of the breast, ovary, lung, bladder, cervix, and sinonasal cavities. Exposure assessments to toxic substances have largely been derived from male animal models. Genetic and other biological differences may contribute to differing susceptibility to agricultural chemicals between men and women. Susceptibility may be increased or it may be reduced due to gender. Therefore, patterns of cancer among women exposed to agricultural chemicals may well differ from patterns observed among men.

Emotional and psychological gender differences related to the isolation of rural farm life have not been assessed. Mental health in rural areas has been a neglected issue in medical care service access. The absence of services may have a detrimental effect on the health and well-being of farm women.

Women who are migrant farm workers are exposed to the same hazards as men who are migrant workers. However, they are likely to experience greater ergonomic problems than their male counterparts. In addition, migrant women who work during their pregnancy are likely to experience problems due to bending and lifting. Exposure to pesticides in the fields has been a persistent problem for all migrant workers and should also be of concern for the children exposed in utero. Women who migrate from other countries may also experience high levels of exposure to farm chemicals that are no longer in use in the United States, increasing their risk of medical problems. Cultural differences, differences in perception of risk, differences in prevention strategies, and language barriers create unique problems for addressing the medical problems of migrant women.

Women who work on the farm are often excluded from consideration of agricultural safety and health programs. Role definition as homemakers or employed workers in settings other than agriculture may influence women’s perception of risk, involvement in safety programs, and identification of diseases related to agricultural exposures.

In general, safety measures to reduce problems among women working in agriculture are the same as those proposed for men. However, women who work infrequently with equipment may need to be retrained when they have been away from it for a while. Women need to be aware that they are exposed to dusts and chemicals that should be mentioned to their physicians when they are having health problems.

SEE ALSO: Cancer, Immigrant health, Rural health, Women in the Workforce

Category: A