Respirator Issues for Agricultural Workers

Exposure to agricultural contaminants can cause a variety of respiratory problems. AgrAbility staff surveyed farmers at Maine Farm Days in Clinton in August, 2015, to learn more about awareness of contaminant exposure and use of respirators on Maine farms.

Although farming is often perceived as working outdoors in the fresh air, in reality farmers and agricultural workers are exposed to a variety of air contaminants during routine tasks1 such as:

  • Working in confined spaces, such as silos
  • Cleaning grain storage bins, which could contain bird or rodent feces or hair
  • Mixing and applying fertilizers and pesticides, “soil-less” potting materials or soil amendments
  • Handling feeds such as fish meal, moldy hay or grain
  • Welding metals
  • Working with paints or solvents

Breathing contaminants can cause a spectrum of ailments including temporary discomfort, allergic reactions, and fatal asphyxiation. Understanding these potential hazards and how to evaluate the risks is important for everyone on the farm. Respiratory protection can significantly decrease the risk of serious lung diseases or death2.

Of the farmers surveyed at Maine Farm Days, data showed:

  • 70% work near dust, chemicals, pesticides, paint, smoke or solvents
  • 57% use respirators for various tasks
  • Of those who use respirators, 73% use dust masks.

Farmers and their workers need to be aware of the hazards of lung exposure to contaminants. Protection with engineering controls, safe work practices and personal protective equipment is critical for long-term health.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been proven to prevent injury and promote farmer’s health. Improving availability of PPE and encouraging proper use could reduce the risk of injury and illness. OSHA offers guidance (PDF) on general respiratory protection for employers and workers. This respiratory selection poster can be hung in work areas as a resource.  For more information check out the Farm Safety  page.

1 Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education, “What’s in the Air?” Monthly Safety Blast, August 2013.

2 Robert Grisso, Extension Engineer, Biological Systems Engineering, Virginia Tech (Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University).