An Analysis of Serious Occupational Diseases and Poisoning to Agricultural Workers in Florida During a Three-Year Period, 1987-1989

  • Becker, William J.

During the three-year period, 1987-1989, the Division of Workers' Compensation reported that there was a total of 8,715 serious occupational injuries or illnesses to agricultural workers in the State of Florida. A serious occupational injury or illness is one that keeps a worker off the job for one week or longer.

Among these 8,715 serious accidents, there was a total of 117 cases of occupational diseases and poisoning, or 1.34 percent of all the serious accidents. This report analyzes these 117 cases.


Over 50 percent of the accidents occurred in one year, as shown in Table 1; of these, 50 percent occurred in one accident in 1989. Forty cases were in one accident, where workers were overcome by pesticide poisoning in a vegetable field. The field had been sprayed the evening before, with a product requiring a 24-hour re-entry period. This re-entry was violated and 40 employees were seriously affected. (As a result, the agri-business lost its restricted pesticide use license and was fined the maximum under the existing rules and regulations.)

Other than this one serious accident, there is no explanation for the increase in serious occupational diseases and poisonings over the preceding two years.

The 117 serious cases were widely distributed across the State of Florida, with at least one serious accident in 26 of the State's 67 counties. With the exception of one county that had 44 serious accidents (40 in the one accident) no other county had more than six such accidents over the three-year period.

Table 1. Number of occupational diseases and poisonings by year
Year Number
1987 19
1988 18
1989 80(40)
Total 117
Table 2. Nature of occupational injuries and illnesses
Nature Number Percent
Skin Disease 43 36.8
Respiratory Disease 37 31.6
Other Diseases 9 7.7
Poisonings 8 6.8
Unknown 20 17.1
Totals 117 100.00


The majority of the serious occupational diseases and poisonings are from pesticides, but not all. Table 2 provides information on the nature of these injuries and illnesses. Skin and respiratory system diseases make up the majority (68.4 percent) of the injuries and illnesses.


Direct contact/absorption and inhalation are the two major types of injury and illness, as shown in Table 3, accounting for 99, or 84.6 percent of the serious injuries and illnesses. Ingestion caused another four injuries or illnesses. The remaining 14 cases were other or unknown, including drownings.

Table 3. Types of occupational injuries and illnesses
Type Number Percent
Direct Contact 67 57.3
Inhalation 32 27.4
Ingestion 4 3.4
Unknown 14 11.9
Total 117 100.00
Table 4. Agents of occupational injuries and illnesses
Agent Number Percent
Chemical & Pesticide 27 23.1
Poison & Infection 20 17.1
Insecticides 15 12.8
Other 20 17.1
Total 82 70.1
Hazardous Chemicals 24 20.5
Total 106 90.6
Other: snake, insect, fungus 11 9.4
Total 117 100.0


Table 4 summarizes the agents of injury for the 117 serious occupational injuries and illnesses which occurred during the three-year period. Pesticides account for 70.1 percent of these. Other hazardous chemicals account for 20.5 percent. Snake and insect bites, fungus infections and drownings are the remaining agents of injury.


Table 5 indicates that of the 117 serious accidents in the occupational disease category 82, or 70.1 percent, are pesticide-related. These injuries or illnesses are nearly equally divided between internal (42) and external (40) problems, with the respiratory system and the skin most often being the affected body parts.

All the other hazardous chemical injuries and occupational diseases were external rashes, burns, bites or infections, except for two drownings.

Table 5. Body parts affected by occupational injuries and illnesses
Body Part Number Percent
By Pesticides
Respiratory 36 30.8
Gastro-intestinal 4 3.4
Nervous 2 1.7
Total Internal 42 35.9
Skin 36 30.8
Eyes 4 3.4
Total External 40 34.2
Total Pesticide 82 70.1
Other Chemicals 24 20.5
Occupational Diseases 11 9.4
Total External (Except two drownings) 35 29.9
Totals 117 100.0

During the three-year period, 1987-89, Florida had 8,715 serious accidents among the agricultural work force. Of these, only 117 or 1.34 percent were classified as occupational diseases and poisonings. Pesticides were associated with 82 of these serious accidents; thus, only 0.94 percent of all serious agricultural accidents were pesticide-related. In addition, 40 of these 82 serious injuries were the result of one catastrophic accident. Without this one accident, the three-year rate would have been less than one-half percent of all the serious agricultural accidents.


The author is of the opinion that Florida agriculture is not unique among states in the type and number of pesticide accidents. Our state is ranked as one of the highest users of pesticide by any given measure. It follows, then, that other states would have a pesticide-accident rate equal to or lower than the State of Florida. National Safety Council data support this conclusion. Florida's problem, however, is not pesticides, it is the hysteria and paranoia generated by various organizations and agencies and by the press.

Why is agriculture's pesticide safety record so good? There are two primary reasons: first, Federal and state regulations have demanded safer products, safer transport, storage, mixing, loading, application and disposal; secondly, the chemical companies, cooperative extension service and various agricultural organizations have done an excellent job of training and retraining pesticide handlers and users at all levels, with the possible exception of the urban gardener.

What agriculture needs, in the area of health and safety, is not more rules, regulation and training with pesticides; but, rather, a national commitment to develop rules, regulations and training to impact the truly significant agricultural safety problems of:

  • Tractor and machinery safety
  • Overexertion (lifting, pushing and pulling)
  • Slips, trips and falls.

There are other problems, also: livestock, power and hand tools, stress, alcoholism, and fires, to name a few. But, any study of agricultural accidents will show that pesticides, poisons or other hazardous chemicals are at or near the bottom of the list.

Let us place our agricultural safety problems in proper priority, and then use our limited resources to address the real safety problems of the farm worker and the farm family.

Publication #: AE-102

This document was published 11/91 as Fact Sheet AE-102 , Florida Cooperative Extension Service. For more information, contact yo

William J. Becker, Professor and Extension Safety Specialist, Agricultural Engineering Department, Cooperative Extension Service

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