Exploitation of agricultural workers has been an issue since humans began farming between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago.
In the UK today, health and safety laws have come a long way to protect agricultural workers from the dangers of farm machinery and chemicals. As one farmer commented, “It is impossible to take shortcuts with regards to using agricultural pesticides now days. Detailed records are needed for all use of chemicals, and if these are not kept, or if licenses are allowed to lapse, the risk of receiving a substantial fine is high”.
Some pesticides may be classified as hazardous substances under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. The Health and Safety Executive provides strict guidelines as to how pesticides are to be transported, stored and used to protect both workers and consumers of farm produce.
However, research shows that despite measures in place to protect agricultural workers, certain diseases are more prevalent among those working in the farming industry.
Healthy Lifestyle but Increased Cancer Risk
According to National Cancer Institute’s Agricultural Health Study, thanks to lower smoking rates and an active lifestyle, farm workers enjoy reduced rates of heart disease and certain types of cancers such as lung and colon cancer. But, the study of 90,000 participants found farming communities have higher rates of leukaemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma, as well as cancers of the skin, lip, stomach, brain, and prostate.
Although a definitive risk factor could not be pinpointed, the report did say that exposure to substances such as pesticides raised serious concerns.
The Shameful Tale of the Sheep Dip That Poisoned Farmers
From the late 1970s, farmers were ordered by the Government to treat their sheep twice a year with a dip made from organophosphate pesticides (OPs). OPs were developed as a nerve gas before the Second World War, and the chemicals could be absorbed through the skin or inhalation.
Tragically, as early as 1951, the highly-influential Lord Zuckerman, later to be the government's chief scientist, warned of the dangers of allowing farmers to use the newly emerging OPs, stating they should be clearly labelled ‘deadly poison’.
Only in 1981 did the HSE produce an advice leaflet on how to use OPs, describing how the chemical can be absorbed through the skin or inhalation. It warned of the dangers of repeated low-level exposure, explaining how toxicity could slowly accumulate in the bodies of farmers if they did not take precautions and use protective clothing.
Tragically, none of this information was passed on to farmers or doctors.
At least 500 farmers across the UK were left with debilitating health problems after using OP chemicals to protect their sheep against parasites, under the Government’s compulsory dipping programme which ran up until 1992. Reports have shown that the Government was fully aware of the dangers presented by OPs, yet publicly criticised farmers who refused to use them.
In 2015 there was cross-party support for an inquiry into whether farmers were misled by the Government over the use of the dangerous chemical. This call was subsequently rejected by the then Minister of State For Farming, George Eustice. He gave the reason that Government’s independent advisers, the Committee on Toxicity (COT) found no link between low-level exposure to OPs and chronic ill health.
Given the reports into the Government’s knowledge of the dangers associated with the pesticide, it is also clear that agricultural workers who have suffered ill-health due to exposure to OPs may have valid compensation claims.
Linking Pesticide Exposure to Disease
The challenge for lawyers is to link ill health with exposure to certain pesticides used in the farming community to ill-health. So far, the only successful court settlement in the UK was brought by a farm worker John Amos Hill in 1997. He won a compensation claim against his employer after suffering chronic ill health after using OPs, having not been given adequate warnings of the health risks of using the chemical, or protective clothing.
However, with more evidence coming to light on the links between agricultural pesticides and disease, the number of successful claimants will begin to increase.
At IBB, our personal injury team, led by Malcolm Underhill, has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent you if you believe you have a compensation claim due to ill-health following exposure to OPs. To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill in our contact form. Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence.