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Dennis J Murphy. (Pp 104.) Published by American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 2003 (ASAE Pub 801M0303). ISBN 1-802769-28-X.
Agriculture is a very dangerous occupation and a complex industry. Health and safety initiatives must account for a wide spectrum of variables such as economic conditions; technology; minimal regulatory controls; the range in workers ages; and many issues influenced by culture, ethnicity, and tradition. Despite a significant increase in federal funding for agricultural health and safety since 1990, when compared with other occupations, the expected reduction in injuries has not occurred. Agricultural health and safety specialists are often perplexed and frustrated with the minimal impact of their efforts.
Dennis Murphy is a national authority on agricultural health and safety, with three decades’ experience in the field. This 100 page book is the result of a recent sabbatical at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) which he used to trace the roots of the agricultural health and safety movement, to analyze major influences on safety initiatives, and to suggest strategies for the future.
There are seven chapters, each having a broad introduction and a clearly stated summary. Ample tables, figures and appendices highlight major points, and references are clearly and accurately cited. In the first three chapters the author argues that agricultural safety and health has been “compassion driven” rather than “evidence” or “theory driven” and provides the background for understanding both the opportunities and barriers created by the multidisciplinary nature of agricultural health and safety. Major programs, including the NIOSH-led National Initiative, are then described.
Chapter 4 provides an excellent overview of major challenges to agricultural safety and health. The author describes what he calls the farm safety–risk paradox, the incongruence between farm people’s safety knowledge, values, and practices. This paradox appears throughout the book, with suggestions on methods to understand and address it through evaluative research during progressive stages of program development and implementation. There is analysis of why agricultural injury surveillance methods are plagued with problems and why, despite noble efforts to collect national level data, the true picture of agricultural injuries (especially non-fatal) eludes us. Chapters 5 and 6 address the strengths and weaknesses of applying behavioral and/or adult learning theories to agricultural safety and health interventions. The author implies that federal funds should be limited for injury surveillance as well as cognitive research to uncover reasons for behavior (except where policy and children are involved); arguing for greater emphasis on partnerships with agribusinesses and adoption of industry behavior based safety programs that integrate workers in problem identification and safety solutions. The last chapter summarizes the author’s review in a “spirit of constructive reflection”, providing nine suggestions and recommendations for action.
The review and analysis, with the author’s reflections and recommendations, are important because they represent the most analytic review of the agricultural health and safety movement since its inception in the early 1900s, and more importantly, since federal initiatives were undertaken in 1989. Given the author’s reputation in this area, his views on past successes and failures, and suggestions for the future, are likely to be read carefully by leaders in both the public and private sector.
While the book is a major contribution to the field, it has limitations, some of which the author points out. The author was immersed within NIOSH while conducting this review, so that the valuable experiences of other federal agencies (for example, US Department of Agriculture), other developed countries (for example, Sweden, Australia) with lower agricultural injury rates, and private sector endeavors (for example, tractor manufacturers’ ROPS rebates) are not sufficiently reflected in this “look beneath the surface”. The past and potential impact of engineering and policy strategies are almost totally neglected. Further, the author’s review and recommendations primarily address traditional, modest sized family farms, without explaining why we should focus on their health and safety issues, knowing that they differ from the rapidly expanding industrialized production sites.
Dr Murphy’s 1992 text, Safety and Health for Production Agriculture is a primer for those new to agricultural health and safety; professionals currently working in agricultural safety and health should definitely read Looking Beneath the Surface. It helps us appreciate our roots, and to understand our compassion as well as our frustrations as we strive to protect the adults and children who produce our food and fiber. The author challenges us to set a single national agenda and reshape the direction of major initiatives, including the NIOSH Ag Centers. Ideally, this book will stimulate discussions that lead to consensus and, ultimately, action among injury preventionists who deal with agricultural populations.