Occupational hazards for agri-workers and health risk for consumers

The Bangladesh economy draws its main strength from agriculture sector. The sector contributes about 19.10 per cent to the GDP and employs approximately for about 48 per cent of the country’s labour force. Agriculture is dependent on nature and farmers and workers are efficient in production but not aware of their own safety and security. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that occupational health hazards have always been a serious issue in agricultural communities since the ancient ages. The continuous use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides increases production but at the same time has created a hazardous condition for farmers and workers.

The variable working conditions in agriculture can be compressed into some specific features, which increase the risk of occupational accidents. Farm workers are exposed to numerous safety, health, environmental, biological, and respiratory hazards.

These include heat exposure, falls, musculoskeletal injuries, hazardous equipment, grain bins, unsanitary conditions, pesticides, and many others. Farm workers’ most common respiratory hazards are bio aerosols, such as organic dusts, micro-organisms, and endotoxins and chemical toxicants from the breakdown of grain and animal waste. Inorganic dust from silicates in harvesting and tilling, is prevalent but less significant.

The work is carried out in the open air, exposing the workers to climatic conditions. The work is of a seasonal nature and certain tasks are urgent in specific periods due to dependency on nature. The same worker performs a variety of tasks. There are no specific working hours during peak season. Farm workers come into contact with animals and plants exposing themselves to bites, infections, allergies and other health problems. The adverse health effects of insecticides may range from damage of nerve impulses, inhibition of blood clotting to paralysis of the respiratory and circulatory centres.

Farmers are also in contact with chemical and biological products. The emergency services are often delayed in time of accidents due to the remoteness of a high percentage of the work sites. The worker’s home is often embedded in the farms for a high percentage of farm populations, increasing the risk of farm-related accidents to children.

The jobs requiring repetitive, forceful, or prolonged exertions of the hands, frequent or heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying of heavy objects and prolonged awkward postures. Every year, thousands of workers become sick from exposure to heat, and some even die. Workers exposed to hot and humid conditions are at a high risk of heat illness, especially if they are doing heavy work tasks during summer.

Deaths and injuries from falls remain a major hazard for farm workers. Agricultural workers who have a non-fatal and fall-related injury rate are far higher than the same type of injury rates in transportation or manufacturing industries. Workers in agricultural operations for both crop and animal production typically use repetitive motions in awkward positions which can cause musculoskeletal injuries.

The most alarming concern about the farmers regarding their occupational safety is the indiscriminate use of pesticides due to the ease of their availability, relatively cheap cost and ease of application. Even though occupational health hazard can be found in most agricultural workers among the developing countries including Bangladesh, not many studies have been carried out in this sector.

The reason may be it is not quite an alarming issue in the developed world because of their less dependency on agriculture due to their industrialised technological advancement.

Pesticides pose risks of short- and long- term illness to farm workers and their families. Pesticides can present a hazard to applicators, to harvesters re-entering a sprayed field, to family members due to take-home contamination, and to rural residents via air, ground water and food.

The typical symptoms of poisoning in humans that are relatively easy to diagnose acute pesticide poisoning are fatigue, headaches and body aches, skin discomfort, skin rashes, poor concentration, feelings of weakness, circulatory problems, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and excessive sweating, impaired vision, tremors, panic attacks, cramps, etc., and in severe cases coma and death.

Workers who mix, load or apply pesticides can be exposed to toxic pesticides due to spills and splashes, defective, missing or inadequate protective equipment, direct spray, or drift. Workers who perform hand labour tasks in areas that have been treated with pesticides face exposure from direct spray, drift or contact with pesticide residues on crop or soil.

Workers may be exposed to pesticides in a variety of ways, including working in a field where these have recently been applied, breathing in pesticide drift from adjoining or nearby fields, working in a pesticide-treated field without appropriate personal protection equipment, eating with pesticide-contaminated hands, taking contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating in a pesticide-contaminated field.

Workers may also be exposed to pesticides if they drink from, wash their hands, or bathe in irrigation canals or holding ponds, where the chemical can accumulate.

In 1983, a study was investigated on the extent of acute pesticide poisoning and their contributing factors in selected agricultural communities in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The study confirmed the existence of this problem, which was found to be due to inadequate knowledge of the safe practices in the use of pesticides among users and to the lack of suitable protective clothing for use by agricultural workers in hot and humid climates, which is still observed among the Bangladeshi agricultural workers.

The result of the study reflecting the pesticide users’ perception of a pesticide-related acute illness, revealed that in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, 7.1 per cent and 7.3 per cent, respectively, of workers had suffered an episode of poisoning during the previous year, compared with only 0.3 per cent in Indonesia.

In all of the four countries, spraying, mixing and diluting of pesticides were the most frequently identified activities associated with poisoning; unfortunately, these activities are still included in the traditional agricultural system of Bangladesh. According to WHO data, 346,000 people die annually worldwide as a result of pesticide poisoning and two-third of them are in the developing countries which includes Bangladesh as well.

The civil society and media are very critical of use of formalin as preservative for fruits, fish and vegetables which prompted the government to enact a law to prevent or regulate the use of formalin.

The law has no real impact on use of formalin in agricultural foods. It only restricts import and trade of formalin causing excessive administrative regulation for related industries and traders. It has added some extra cost of products causing national loss.

Formalin may be washed away by water but the pesticides are not washable in the kitchen of consumers. The prepared foods are safe from impact of formalin. But pesticides are more harmful than formalin. Pesticides cannot be removed by simple washing or cooking by heat.

Unfortunately, civil society and media are not aware of impact on human body due to consumption of pesticide-used agriculture products.

Agricultural products are not popular in Europe market due to reported excessive use of pesticides. Bangladesh exports some vegetable and fruits for market of expatriate Bangalees. Recently the European Union and some NGOs took up a project for production of mango under close supervision to monitor use of pesticides etc and exported a few hundred tons of the fruit mangos to the UK markets for selling to British buyers through recognised chain stores.

We can have the same supervision and education of farmers about risk of excessive use of pesticides for our own consumption and health and security of farmers and consumers.

The writer is a legal economist

Email: shah@banglachemical.com

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