by Tina Morgan CFIOSH, Chair of IOSH Rural Industries Group
Most people who work in agriculture and associated industries are aware of the safety risks like contact with moving machinery and equipment, falling from ladders or working with livestock, but how many are aware of the risks to their health from their everyday activities?
Having asked the question of farmers what they considered to be the greatest risk to their health, most will mention the presence of old asbestos roof sheets, the zoonotic diseases transferred from animals to humans and many will mention ‘Farmers Lung’ from inhaling dust or mould spores. Some may even be aware of dermatitis caused by contact with chemicals, but few are aware of the potential risks to their health from absorption of the chemicals they work with.
What they will rarely mention is work-related cancers or other debilitating diseases.
Agriculture workers are at risk of developing occupational cancers due to the type of activities undertaken on a daily basis. The latest HSE report on Occupational Cancer in Great Britain published in November 2022 advises that ‘while it is difficult to assess the role of occupational exposure in the development of cancer and that it is also particularly difficult to link individual cases of cancer to the associated work exposures.’
What is clear is that occupational cancer is something that we should be aware of and should be taking appropriate steps to protect ourselves from.
An extract taken from Top on the agenda: Health and safety in agriculture Labour Education 2000/1-2 Nos. 118/119 it identifies that ‘Farmers are exposed to chemical products, noxious gases and toxic dusts that can provoke respiratory diseases. Some are suspected carcinogens such as solvents, paints, fuels, exhaust fumes and pesticides. Results of epidemiological studies indicate that farmers have higher risks for some diseases such as leukaemia and cancers of the lip, stomach, skin, prostate, brain and conjunctive tissues, among other diseases’ (Blair and Zahm, 1991)
A Carcinogen is something that has the potential to cause Cancer and they get into the body through ingestion, inhalation, injection, or absorption.
When we look at absorption, studies have shown that repeated exposure to waste oil and petroleum-based chemicals (Petrol and diesel) have been linked to cases of skin cancer[iii]. Many cases have been identified in those working in motor vehicle repair, but the exposure is often the same for agriculture.
Where there is direct contact, the skin can absorb the chemicals but there is also a risk of absorption through rags which are kept in pockets or clothing which has been contaminated by petrol, diesel or grease.
We all saw the videos during COVID showing how the virus on the hands can spread to the eyes, eyelids, mouth, other parts of the face, forearms, hair, legs and other areas touched by the hands.
We also learnt the importance of washing our hands well on a regular basis. So why hasn’t this spread to agriculture?
Think about it… if you are handling carcinogenic chemicals and not washing your hands what happens when you go to the toilet? Testicular cancer is strongly related to age, with the highest incidence rates being in the 30 to 34 age group. In the UK in 2016-2018, on average each year only 1% of new cases (1%) were in males aged 75 and over.
Coming back to the brain as was mentioned above, in April 2022 the BBC reported on a Farm manager, Andy Pollard who has advanced Parkinson’s Disease and spent decades spraying herbicides on his land. He was unaware of the any danger and therefore didn’t use protective equipment. His wife Sue had thought it was a coincidence that the only people she knew with Parkinson’s were farm workers.
And what of ingestion, well I suspect most will say that they don’t eat or drink the oils, pesticides or solvents they use, but do they? How many people having handled such chemicals then always wash their hands, forearms and face before eating, drinking and smoking? The chemicals that are on the skin are transferred to the filter of a cigarette or the sandwich that is then eaten.
Everyday chemicals come with a Manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) which identifies the hazards and provides suitable control measures, but unfortunately these are rarely consulted and in some instances the workers are completely unaware of the risks.
Farmers need to make themselves aware of the hazards so they can take appropriate steps to protect themselves from the risks they can see and those that they can’t.
The good news is that there are some simple steps that can be taken, and they could make a big difference to the likelihood of exposure.
- Know the risks associated with the chemicals you are using. Consult the Material Safety Data Sheet for Chemicals and CoSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous To Health) Assessments for things like dusts, spores, vapours, fumes etc.
- Always wear the correct Personal Protective Equipment.
- Always remove skin contaminants by washing with clean warm water before eating, drinking, smoking or using the lavatory. When washing use the mildest cleanser required to get the job done. Don’t use concentrated cleaning products, solvents or fuel. Using barrier creams before work can make skin cleansing easier.
- Use moisturising creams after work and after washing hands. This helps to keep the skin hydrated and prevents cracked skin.
- Makes sure that soiled overalls/outer clothing is removed as soon as possible and that they are cleaned thoroughly before wearing them again. If they are heavily soiled replace them as soon as possible.
- Don’t keep oily rags in pockets. The oil seeps through the clothing and can be absorbed into the skin.
- Reporting and skin or other health problems to management and see a GP if you are concerned.
- Where provided attend Occupational Health screening.