Farming is one of the top three occupations that are very dangerous to the health, not only due to the use of heavy machinery in terrible weather conditions, but also because of the high risk of acquiring work-related or occupational diseases. Farming is next to mining and construction in having a high risk of exposure to occupational health dangers such as chemicals and toxic substances. Aside from the exposure to fertilizers, chemicals, and pest control chemicals, farmers may also be exposed to biological hazards at work. This article explores three of the commonest diseases which farmers can contract during the course of their working lives.
Farmer’s lung is a type of hypersensitivity pneumonitis, which is contracted by farmers after exposure to contaminated hay and grains. The exposure to contaminated hay produces inflammation in the airways and alveoli due to immunologic reactions to antigens produced by mould and fungal spores commonly found in damp hay and grain. The most common causative microorganisms for farmer’s lung are the Aspergillus species or Actinomyces species of fungi. These are fungi that thrive in hay in humid environments. Farmer’s lung causes symptoms such as difficulty of breathing, a chronic cough, chest tightness and an increased rate of breathing. Farmer’s lung eventually leads to fibrosis or scarring of the lung tissues because of prolonged inflammation in the area, and this can make it difficult to breathe. Unfortunately the scarring is permanent, and the disease is irreversible.
Another common occupational disease affecting farmers is commonly referred to as Silo-Filler’s Disease. Silo-Filler’s Disease is an occupational lung disease that is similar to farmer’s lung, but it is caused by inhalation of toxic gas rather than mould spores. The toxic gas in question is nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is released from fresh silage or animal feed. The inhalation of nitrogen dioxide causes acute respiratory distress syndrome due to inflammation of the lung tissues, and narrowing of the airways. Silo-Filler’s Disease may also cause pulmonary edema and lung congestion. The main treatment of the disease is respiratory support to improve ventilation of clients.
The lungs are not the only part of the body which can succumb to disease or damage. Another common occupational disease experienced by farmers is ringworm. Ringworm is medically known as dermatophytosis, and is a fungal infection that affects the skin. The condition is not actually caused by a worm, but a fungus that feeds on keratin in the skin. Farmers are exposed to this fungus because of contact with contaminated agents such as grass, hay, grains, or soil in which it thrives. This work-related disease commonly produces symptoms such as a raised red ring that tends to enlarge, hence the term ringworm. Ringworm may affect the groin and cause jock itch, the foot and cause athlete’s foot symptoms or the nails causing them to fall off. Treatment of ringworm generally involves application of anti-fungal creams on the affected area. Ringworm is treatable, however as with any fungal infection, it can take some time to eradicate.
Occupational diseases tend to affect those who do not use personal protective equipment, and in the case of farmers lung and silo-fillers disease it may take some time after exposure before the disease becomes apparent. The good news is that these occupational diseases are preventable; the use of protective clothing and face mask is vital, and when used properly they can prevent these occupational diseases from occurring. If health and safety equipment is not provided, it is vital that a complaint is made to the employer as the health of farm workers can seriously suffer if preventative action is not taken.
Occupational diseases such as farmers lung and silo filers disease are highly serious. Exposure to the causative agents may not be avoidable, but action can be taken to ensure that the risks to the health are greatly reduced. If you have any doubt about your own health and safety at work, you need to speak to your employer to ensure that proper protective equipment is supplied. It is an employer’s legal responsibility to ensure that workers are not placed at excessive risk of contracting occupational diseases.
Mark Williams writes on personal health and wellness.