FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 13, 2021
CONTACT: Scott Heiberger
AgInjuryNews helps fill the gap in agricultural injury reporting
BY MYSTIQUE MACOMBER
Occupational fatalities in agriculture are well documented and recorded by the federal government, but tracking non-working bystander and nonfatal injuries to farmers, ranchers, workers and their families falls short. AgInjuryNews.org helps fill the gap by compiling injuries reported in news clippings and media reports, while at the same time creating a database of details surrounding incidents that tell stories of real people.
In 2015, Dr. Bryan Weichelt and colleagues at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute’s National Farm Medicine Center (NFMC) launched the online tool as a way to store and access newspaper clippings about agricultural incidents – both fatalities and nonfatal injuries – that had been kept in binders. Weichelt hoped to build an open and accessible dataset to serve stakeholders beyond the center, unbound by geographic or organizational borders. AgInjuryNews.org is a free website tool that registered users can use to access, filter and search the database to uncover health and safety issues and find detailed case reports from news media.
The AgInjuryNews team primarily searches online to find and compile data related to trauma incidents in agriculture, forestry and commercial fishing. The acquisition of content from the web results in a near real-time look at incidents across the country. In 2020, 724 new cases were published, bringing the total available reports to more than 3,800.
The number of users and time spent on AgInjuryNews.org continues to grow. In 2020, 220 new users registered for the site, bringing the subscriber count to nearly 1,000. Visitors remain on the site longer, with typical sessions lasting more than 10 minutes per user, according to 2020 statistics.
National ag fatality surveillance
“Fatal injuries in agriculture and other occupations are reported fairly well by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, or CFOI”, said Dr. Risto Rautiainen, professor in the Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and director of the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, or CS-CASH. Rautiainen noted CFOI is the “gold standard” for reporting fatal occupational injuries. “Every state has a system for collecting the data into the CFOI system. That is limited to those cases that are occupational,” he said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has fostered contractual relationships with state agencies to access records in death investigations, said Jameson Bair, administrative program specialist for the BLS - Occupational Safety & Health, US Department of Labor, at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene.
“But because agricultural incidents don’t have the same level of surveillance efforts and safety enforcement directed at their establishments generally, even when fatal incidents occur, we uncover less material information pertaining to these incidents and have less actionable information to collect and analyze, and we produce less useful statistical information to help their industries improve their safety records and practices,” Bair said. “County death investigators are some of the most crucial contacts our agency has within the state, but some county offices simply do not respond to inquiries, including those from the federal government when their participation is not compelled by law.”
When it comes to nonfatal agricultural injuries, the BLS system falls short, Rautiainen said. “For most other industries, everybody’s covered by workers compensation, and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulates and mandates for companies to keep OSHA 300 logs for recording all injures that happen in the company,” he said. Occupational nonfatal injuries are reported in the Survey of Occupational Illnesses and Injuries, or SOII.
Gaps in the system
“For agriculture, it’s very incomplete. Self-employed farmers and ranchers are not covered,” Rautiainen said, nor workers on small farms with fewer than 10 employees. OSHA only regulates those with more than 10 employees and requires them to keep 300 logs and contribute to SOII surveys, he said.
The very nature of farming is challenging, Bair said. “Rural communities are usually less accessible and observed less closely by public institutions and can harbor more skepticism of government intervention in their lives. Laws have been written to reinforce agricultural industries’ autonomy with respect to certain types of reporting to the government, particularly in the case of nonfatal incidents. In our nonfatal occupational incident collection, farms of 10 or fewer employees are exempt from reporting, so the BLS is not collecting or producing any statistical information regarding (those) farming operations and nonfatal incident rates and types. That lack of insight into their community’s needs regarding their specific safety challenges can instigate further mortality, as well,” Bair said.
“You can’t ignore the fact that there are national level systems in place to conduct occupational illness and injury surveys” using BLS reporting through the states, said Dr. Erika Scott, deputy director of the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH)/Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (Affiliated with Bassett Healthcare Network).
Most researchers agree CFOI is a stable and good source of fatality data. “It’s not absolutely perfect but it does a good job,” she said.
Agriculture is unique in how it’s regulated – or not – and the many exemptions to rules in how an injury might be identified, Scott said. That results in an undercount in agriculture, especially illness and injuries.
“If neither the coroners/medical examiners nor local police or journalists do their due diligence in investigating and disseminating this information about agricultural and rural incidents, often so goes the ability of the federal government to track them. We collect and research as many incidents as possible each year, but we have acknowledged as an organization that there is an undercount due to these cracks in our surveillance capabilities,” he said.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) extramural research is trying to fill those gaps, Scott said.
“Each source of data has its own benefits and helps flesh out the overall picture of what’s happening in agricultural injuries,” Scott said. The result is a “more complete picture, but each one as a stand-alone isn’t a perfect system.”
Millions of missing people
It’s not easy to get a good count of the number of people who work in agriculture, Rautiainen said, but US Department of Agriculture, or USDA, statistics show there are 2 million farms in the country. The number of operators or producers is at least 1.5 times bigger than the number of farms, he said, which means there are 3.4 million producers who are principal operators, as well as their spouses and other family members who are considered producers by the USDA. “These people, in general, would not be covered by Bureau of Labor Statistics nonfatal injury surveys,” Rautiainen said.
Previous census of agriculture reports put the number of hired workers at 1.2 million, he said.
“Smaller farms, employees who work for smaller farms and self-employed farmers make up at least two-thirds of the whole agriculture workforce, and they basically are not in these Bureau of Labor Statistics data,” Rautiainen said.
“How can we get information on the nonfatal injury incidents for farmers and small farmers and workers? You have to do some other data collection, and that’s not what Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely does,” he said.
In 2020, CS-CASH sent surveys to 17,000 to producers in a seven-state region and had about a 16 percent return rate, Rautiainen said. Out of every 100 producers, 15 reported an injury in the past 12 months.
“That’s a very high number,” he said. “Bureau of Labor Statistics usually reports about four or five per hundred workers, so three times higher for producers.”
Challenges to tracking injuries
Scott is part of a team researching injury surveillance in agriculture, forestry and commercial fishing. The three form a super sector that for many years focused just on agriculture. The research extends beyond surveillance to a public health model to make decisions for public health issues.
Her team’s focus is health care data sets, such as hospitalizations, pre-hospital care reports and ambulance run records. It’s difficult to identify occupation, but they use a keyword search algorithm or look for words that allude to occupation, she said.
“AgInjuryNews has similar challenges with the text used,” Scott said. “What would a journalist write up? What is an EMT writing to describe this injury for reporting purposes? How can we leverage this existing data and make it valuable for another area of health, beyond Emergency Medical Bureau, for instance?”
Scott’s agriculture and health safety center, NYCAMH, is based in a hospital system as opposed to a university, which offers a unique statistical population data set for research. What began as combing through carbon copies of ambulance reports has grown into including more records. EMT narratives of what’s happening at the injury site “is an incredibly rich source, much better than a hospital record,” she said.
Filling the gap
Likewise, AgInjuryNews is able to track injury details through media reports, providing a rich narrative that’s not available in statistical data.
“The value in AgInjuryNews and other media monitoring systems is really to get a little bit of detail on new injury cases that happen,” Rautiainen said. “AgInjuryNews couldn’t put together injury rates, but you can get some very good points for prevention. When you can read how an individual injury happens, you can get a lot of ideas” about how to potentially prevent injuries.
People aren’t interested as much in numbers, Rautiainen said. “Stories are much more powerful in understanding what’s going on and what’s potentially a problem that needs some attention.” When he puts together reports for legislators with annual updates for injury cases, he always chooses to highlight certain cases. “It becomes much more personal and much more powerful information than just giving some big numbers.”
BLS provides some of the annual “big numbers that are very useful for checking if we are making some progress over five years or 10 years or 20 years,” Rautiainen said. “But to get sort of more detailed information that we need for prevention, I think the kind of data that (AgInjuryNews) and we have is almost more useful for prevention.”
BLS uses AgInjuryNews to collect new CFOI cases and spot-check annual records for missing incidents.
“AgInjuryNews has quickly become a prominent facilitator of recovering these fatal farm incidents on behalf of the BLS CFOI program,” Bair said. “We have access to other agencies’ records in order to determine details of scope with respect to counting these incidents in our census, but AgInjuryNews has helped with both case discovery (finding potential new fatal incidents that belong to our CFOI collection) as well as confirming specific details not always found in even governmental investigations of these cases. Local news articles, which serve as some of the main public-sourced information we collect for the CFOI, are often cleansed from websites quickly, and with few incentives for private businesses to retain archival records of this reporting, we rely on systems developed for the public good to preserve these records. AgInjuryNews has done an excellent job of retaining and organizing farm incident reports published online.”
The ag center in Omaha, CS-CASH, has been collecting media reports and monitoring data for about 10 years, Rautiainen said. Murray Madsen got started 20 years ago at the University of Iowa in the fatality investigation program, collecting data for Iowa and other neighboring states. CS-CASH contracted Madsen to continue his media monitoring program. Now those reports are shared with AgInjuryNews and included in the database.
In 2019, Rautiainen was a senior author on a paper, Comparison of agricultural injuries reported in the media and census of fatal occupational injuries, Journal of Agromedicine. The CS-CASH study findings suggest that media monitoring can capture equal numbers of fatalities compared to CFOI, and that non-fatal injuries can be collected and tracked using print and electronic media.
The paper’s conclusion stated: “While CFOI is the ‘gold standard’ for occupational fatality counts and rates, the actual rate of non-fatal injuries cannot be determined by government databases due to inadequate surveillance. Available data are inadequate to set well-informed national strategies, policies and targets for ag safety. Media monitoring might prove useful in providing a strengthened surveillance system for detection of serious non-fatal injuries to both hired ag workers and self-employed farmers and ranchers.
“This research indicates that media reports can capture the majority of fatality cases and add value by providing more detailed case information that is valuable for prevention. In addition to fatalities, electronic and print reports provide information on serious non-fatal injuries. Media reports create a rich source of case-based information that can be used in crafting prevention strategies and messages.”