Five-Year University Study Sheds Light On Farm Workers’ Challenges And Potential Solutions

by | 02.04.2017 | 8:00am

The University of Kentucky's College of Public Health and the University of Maryland's School of Social Work have released the results of a five-year study into health and safety of workers at Thoroughbred operations.

Researchers spoke to farm workers and management, administering a number of surveys to learn more about the workers' experience, injury histories, and access to resources on the job at small, medium, and large farms. The survey found the average work week for a full-time employee was 48 hours, for which the average full-time, non-seasonal worker made around $9.50 per hour. Researchers collected information on a total of 284 injuries incurred by workers on 22 farms, ranging from minor contusions to broken bones. Interestingly, only 57 percent of injuries suffered on the job were directly as a result of contact with a horse, with 20 percent of those coming from a kick.

Although the average farm worker had been around horses for 11 years, some of the recorded injuries might have been prevented with different handling procedures. The survey also determined most farm workers had no safety manual (72 percent) and no employee policy manual (62 percent) to help them learn standard procedures at their farm, or understand resources available in terms of insurance if they were injured. The vast majority of those with access to manuals (79 to 86 percent) had read them. Employees reported the majority of injuries taking place in the morning (67 percent) and in the autumn months (48 percent happened from August to October), suggesting managers should encourage busy workers to take their time with horses, particularly during these stretches.

Language continues to be a problem as managers and farm workers communicate about what needs to be done or how a task should safely be performed. Just 34 percent of workers indicated they understood spoken English well, and while roughly two thirds of Spanish-speaking workers say they have a supervisor who can communicate with them in Spanish, researchers learned there was still great potential for misunderstandings. Managers are encouraged to ask workers to repeat instructions back to them to ensure understanding (assuming a worker understands because they're nodding isn't the best practice), and to translate written documents to Spanish, aiming for approximately a fifth grade reading level, in accordance with the average surveyed education level. The Kentucky Equine Management Internship Program and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration provide safety and training materials in Spanish, and some workers may access English classes through the Blue Grass Farms Charities.

Another area research indicates managers often forget about: respiratory health. The average worker spent 23 hours of the week in the barn with dusty bedding and hay; multiply this by the average 11 years' experience on horse farms, and it's perhaps little surprise 62 percent reported some symptoms of upper or lower respiratory irritation. Just 38 percent of workers said they were given access to dust masks during their work. Managers are encouraged to provide masks, replace them when they become worn, and educate workers on their benefits.

The Universities have joined forces on a website to provide educational resources to farm managers and workers, based on the study's findings.

See the full results of the study, along with tips for farm managers and owners here.

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