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Agricultural Safety and Health Research and Extension
Purschwitz, M. A.
Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
The most hazardous industry in the U.S. is Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing with a work death rate that is eight times higher than the all-industry average (NSC, 2009). The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries database suggests that production agriculture accounts for over 75% (447) of the 585 work deaths attributed to the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing industry in 2007 (U.S. DOL BLS, 2009).
State-level data suggest that the actual number of deaths associated with farming is higher because youth, who may be as young as two years old, that are fatally injured from exposure to farm work hazards are not counted in national statistics (Murphy & Kassab, 2006; NSC, 2009).
Based upon available data, much of which is incomplete, over 700 cases of fatal and partial entrapments have been documented over the past 30 years in grain storage and handling facilities (Roberts, 2009) and over 100 fatal and non-fatal incidents have been documented in livestock waste handling and storage operations (Beaver, 2007).
In addition, fatalities have been documented in other forms of confined spaces including silos, chemical storage tanks, transport vehicles, fermentation tanks and bulk milk tanks. It is estimated that 25-40 confined spaces-related fatalities occur annually in agricultural operations, including off-farm processing and storage sites.
Currently, most agricultural production workers and sites are exempt from having to comply with OSHA confined spaces regulations, including 29 CFR 1910.146 that covers permit-required confined spaces and 29 CFR 1910.272 covering grain handling and storage facilities (U.S. DOL OSHA, 2009). Both of these standards includes provisions designed to prevent access to spaces that contain insufficient oxygen levels, flammable gases and vapors, and potential toxic environments; and mandating safe confined spaces rescue procedures.
In addition, there are no specific engineering design practice consensus standards in place that cover agricultural confined spaces with the exception of an engineering practice standard for manure storage facilities developed following the death of 5 workers on a Michigan dairy farm (citation). A review of extension-related resources identified few widely used educational tools with the exception of information on recommended rescue strategies (NRAES-10, 1999 Revision).
2011 Project Description
The first objective was to develop a white paper that addresses topics such as: nature and types of agricultural confined space structures and facilities; frequency & severity of agricultural confined space injury incidents; past and current research on agricultural confined space safety issues; engineering and technology challenges and opportunities for reducing agricultural confined space exposures and injury incidents; current and future agricultural confined space education and training efforts and needs; policy needs to address the injury risk associated with agricultural confined spaces; identify and prioritize future agricultural confined space safety research and education.
The white paper is focusing on grain storage facilities, and is still in draft form, but reaching finalization. The primary authors were Bill Field and Bob Aherin from Purdue and Illinois, respectively; Mark Purschwitz from Kentucky provided extensive review (and was one of the only committee members to do so.) This white paper will be the first document to "put it all together" in terms of grain storage risks and challenges.
Objective 2, which involves holding a conference on the topic, has been delayed until 2013 so that the white paper is finished and can be used in the conference.
The knowledge gained in drafting the white paper enabled Drs. Field and Aherin to successfully apply for OSHA training grants dealing with grain storage facilities. Dr. Purschwitz was asked and will serve on the advisory board for the Purdue training grant.
Drafting the white paper has also resulted in Dr. Field developing a personal relationship with Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA (the head of OSHA) and being able to personally discuss these hazards with him; this is important because typically the top OSHA administrators do not know much if anything about agriculture. Because the white paper has not been finalized, it is not listed in the publication section of this report, but even in draft form is an outcome that has had impact, and will have greater impact when finalized and widely distributed to both agricultural producers and the grain handling industry.
While not part of the direct objectives of this committee, Dr. Purschwitz expended considerable time and effort in reviewing and formally commenting on new proposed US Dept. of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, rules for child and youth agricultural labor. Considerable time and effort was also expended in informing numerous other agricultural groups (e.g., National Association of Agricultural Educators, NAAE) that would be greatly affected by these regulations, exhorting them to read the proposed rules in detail and formally comment on them. There were considerable "unintended consequences" in the details, which Dr. Purschwitz pointed out.
Over 10,000 comments were received by USDOL, the comment period was extended by one month, and NAAE is arranging a meeting directly with the USDOL staffer overseeing the proposed rules, to explain in person the realities of agriculture and the problems with these rules.