Construction & Agriculture Safety – Lessons for Both Industries

The agriculture and construction industries face similar challenges and work exposures. The two industries can learn from each other to make each safer for their workers. Three particular workplace risks come to mind: Valley Fever, excavation safety, and heat illness.

Valley Fever

Construction and agriculture both involve work with soil and face two major safety challenges when working in areas of substantial dusty conditions and subterranean soils. Dusty conditions put these workers at risk for Valley Fever, which is an illness that usually affects the lungs. It is caused by the fungus Coccidioides imitis that lives in the soil of many parts of California and has been known to occur in employees working in previously undisturbed soil. Although not as common among agricultural workers, Valley Fever does happen from time to time in agriculture.

Valley Fever Coccidiodes immitis lives in the top two to twelve inches of soil. When disturbed by activities such as shovel work, tillage, or land clearing, the fungal spores of Valley Fever can become airborne. When the Valley Fever spores are breathed into the lungs, the spores can grow and reproduce in the body. Both agricultural and construction workers should be taught the following:

  1. Check with the local county health department to determine if you are working in an area prone to Valley Fever.
  2. Train employees and supervisors on the symptoms of the disease – fever, skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes, pain and swelling in the joints, headaches, and stiff neck.
  3. Limit exposures and require employees to use respiratory protection. Use NIOSH-approved respiratory protection and implement a respirator program as required by Cal/OSHA.
  4. Wet soils to reduce dust.
  5. Practice upwind preventive measures.

Excavation Safety

In addition to being exposed to Valley Fever, construction and agricultural workers are also at risk of trenching danger when working in subterranean soils.

This fact was brought home to me several years back when I observed two agricultural irrigators digging out a water valve that was buried four feet underground. In the construction trade, both employers and employees are knowledgeable about the dangers faced by digging in excavations deeper than four feet. However, in agriculture, digging trenches below three to four feet is not a regular occurrence. Many agricultural owners and employees are unaware of the dangers and legal requirements of digging in subterranean soil, where an employee can easily be trapped.

I, therefore, have often taken the knowledge and training from the construction industry and applied it to agriculture. By teaching agriculture irrigator employees basic information about soil types and the benching and sloping requirements of excavations, agricultural workers can be taught to safely perform repairs and replace underground water valves. Agricultural workers as well as their construction counterparts can be taught to safely plan for excavations and to be knowledgeable about subterranean risks, including electrical, communication, and water lines.

Employees conducting excavations should be taught to bench or slope excavations deeper than four feet and to set back spoils (the soil being taken out of excavations). Vehicle traffic around excavations should be cordoned off and the excavations clearly marked.

Employees should be taught to identify the various soil types and benching and sloping requirements for each type of soil.

Heat Illnesses

In the Agriculture Industry, I have found that both employers and employees have well-established procedures for addressing work in the heat. Indeed, most agricultural operations even have customized shade trailers that allow employees to get out of the direct sunlight and to sit in the shade during hot days. In addition, having access to adequate amounts of water and individual disposable drinking cups and sanitization facilities is a given for virtually all agricultural operations. All employees receive documented heat illness prevention training initially and during heatwaves.

To ensure that employees understand the personal risk and contributors to heat illness I always start my training by asking employees to describe the personal factors that can contribute to a work-related heat illness. Often employees will describe heat illness symptoms which are of course good to know, but I want employees to understand that personal factors such as age and personal medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, can make a worker more susceptible to heat illness. The majority of employees in the agricultural industry receive adequate training and understand the risk of working in the heat.

That is not always the case in the construction industry, where job sites tend to be temporary and change daily. I have often arrived on a job site on a hot day and have not spotted drinking water (unless supplied by the employees themselves – which is not acceptable) or shade. I will ask employees if they have received heat illness prevention training and often the answer is no. ICW Group has a webinar on this topic and I encourage you to watch. A job site should meet the following criteria to provide adequate protection for employees:

  • Shade should be provided whenever temperatures exceed 80 degrees or upon employee request.
  • Adequate amounts of drinking water (2 gallons per employee for an 8-hour workday) should be accessible to employees at all times and replenishment procedures should be in place.
  • Shade should be available in sufficient amounts for everyone on the crew.
  • Documented employee & supervisor training on prevention and identification of heat illness symptoms, and emergency procedures to follow in case of an employee heat illness.

Employee safety in whatever industry is no accident. Safety should be as commonplace as saying good morning and an essential aspect of every occupation.  Thus, it can be concluded that both the agriculture and the construction industries can both use their knowledge base to better the working conditions of their essential workers that we all depend upon.

Jose Gutierrez
Jose Gutierrez
Jose joined the ICW Group team in 2013 and provides risk management services in our central California coast region. Jose is a resident of Oxnard, California and has over 30 years of experience in the workers’ compensation insurance industry and assists clients across a spectrum of industries, including Agriculture, Construction, Manufacturing and the Service Industries. Jose has a Bachelor of Arts in Politics from UC Santa Cruz and is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP). Jose is fluent in English and Spanish, and provides clients with management and employee safety training on specialized topics.

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