The respiratory health of farmers has been identified as one of the major health concerns facing the farming population. Recent agrability surveys conducted by the Mid-Atlantic Agrability Project in New Jersey showed respiratory illnesses to be the 6th leading cause of disability and accounted for 5.2% of the total disabilities. This compares to a survey on the Delmarva Peninsula in 2000 where respiratory illnesses accounted for 8% of all disabilities. A study in Iowa showed the overall rate of respiratory illness among farmers to be 17% per year. Chronic bronchitis and organic toxic dust syndrome (OTDS) were the most commonly reported conditions.
November is COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) Awareness Month and a great time to emphasize respiratory health on farms. According to the American Lung Association (ALA) 24 million Americans have impaired lung function, which is commonly known as COPD which is the third leading cause of death in the United States.
COPD, also known as emphysema and chronic bronchitis is a lung disease characterized by an obstruction to airflow that interferes with normal breathing and over time makes it difficult to breath. Although COPD is not curable, it is preventable and can be treated and managed effectively. ALA encourages people at risk to consult a physician about a spirometry test in order to diagnose the disease and begin treatment.
Despite smoking less, farmers have increased rates of chronic bronchitis. Components of agricultural dusts are sufficiently irritating to the airways of the lung to cause mucus overproduction leading to repeated coughs with phlegm. The dust is also a factor in asthma and allergic problems (runny nose, irritated eyes) which may occur with entry to poultry and other confinement housing. Toxic fumes can also be encountered by people working in manure storage areas associated with animal confinement facilities. A wide range of morbidity and mortality findings suggests that respiratory hazards may represent the greatest health hazard to famers.
The following strategies are important in addressing COPD and other respiratory diseases:
- Know the respiratory hazards on your farm
Common respiratory hazards on farms include but are not limited to dusts, mold spores, gases such as ammonia in poultry operations, silo and manure gases; pesticides and fumes from welding and hot work
- Know the signs and symptoms of COPD
Symptoms include constant coughing, shortness of breath when doing everyday activities, producing a lot of sputum, wheezing and feeling like you can’t breathe or take a deep breath
Consult a physician about a spirometry test in order to diagnose the disease as early as possible and begin treatment
Use ventilation and PPE to protect yourself from the identified respiratory hazards. In general respirators should have two straps, fit the face tightly, be appropriate for the respiratory hazard and approved by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). For the proper respirator contact a local safety equipment supplier.
Replace the respirator if it becomes difficult to breathe through, dirty or loses it shape. Always follow the manufacturer’s instruction relative to replacement, maintenance and storage.
How important is your health? If you want to continue to breathe freely and promote respiratory health, protect yourself from respiratory hazards. Remember that farm safety adds value to your business and you are the primary benefactor!