Agriculture is statistically the UK’s most dangerous industry, with more fatal accidents on farms than any other sector and some 13,000 work-related cases of ill-health each year, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Many of those cases of ill health come from fumes given off by both the chemicals and waste materials used in farming processes, as well as industrial elements that keep a farm running.
With that in mind, this post looks at three significant health risks and solutions for farm fumes.
The important issue of ammonia
A Health England report from 2019 called air pollution ‘the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure.’
According to this report published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, farm emissions are the largest contributor to air pollution in the UK, as well as the US, Europe, Russia and China.
The issue comes from large amounts of ammonia, given off by fertilisers and livestock waste, mixing with combustion pollutants to form fine-particulate aerosols called PM 2.5 that measure no more than 2.5 microns – about one 30th the width of a human hair.
There is no easy fix, though sustainability-focused journal Ensia covers some safe working tips for farms. They include:
- Lowering the protein content of livestock food to reduce nitrogen levels that end up released into the air as ammonia
- Applying techniques that deliver manure to the soil, such as band application or injection – instead of spreading manure over the soil surface
- Changing to less volatile fertilisers and crop rotations that include nitrogen-capturing crops like alfalfa and clover.
Additionally, that same Ensia article notes that reducing vehicle and industrial emissions will also go a long way towards reducing the number of potentially harmful aerosols in the air. To that end, initiatives like the Road to Zero and the government’s Ten Point Green Plan bode well for the future of UK air quality.
Livestock and grain dust
Another of the big health risks and solutions for farm fumes centres on respirable dust given off from animals kept in farm settings.
As an example of livestock dust, poultry dust incorporates mites, mould, feathers, dead skin, faecal matter, wood shavings and straw. All of which can harm the respiratory systems of farmworkers and cause nasty side-effects like coughing, wheezing, red eyes and shortness of breath.
Livestock dust can be generated from laying down bedding for animals to cleaning out litter and manure, catching wayward animals and even routine maintenance.
Combating this while meeting health and safety requirements in farms means following Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations, including:
- Carrying out extensive risk assessments
- Offering safety information and training to employees
- Providing adequate Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE)
- And conducting regular health checks in the workplace that meet COSHH standards.
Another sizeable danger for farmworkers involves combustible dust from grains and other crops. If not properly extracted, this can gather and be set ablaze by a stray spark or flame. (More on that in the next section).
For more information and guidance, see HSE’s page on COSHH essentials for farmers.
Fumes from welding and other machinery
Farming and welding go hand-in-hand. In fact, it’s fair to say you can’t run a farm without doing some welding spot work here and there – as discussed extensively over at Welding Info Center.
However, welding also throws up some significant dangers – not least the visible vapour cloud it gives off, which is made up of 90%-95% particulate matter and 5%-10% gases. When it comes to managing these, being up to date on COSHH guidelines in agriculture is essential.
Another significant danger of welding in a farm setting is one we mentioned above. Combustible dust requires a dedicated extraction solution to ensure workers’ health is protected – both from its potentially harmful respiratory effects, and from the dangers of an explosion that could cause property damage, personal injury, or worse besides.
How to create a safe working environment in farms
Ever-mindful of the dangers of combustible dust, at VODEX, our top tip for safe working tips for farms is to install and use a high-quality fume and dust extraction system.
Our fully certified food and agriculture extraction solutions are designed to remove potentially harmful particulate from the air. Many also include additional safety features like explosion relief panels and special fans, to further mitigate the chances of an explosion, keeping your farm and farmworkers as safe as possible.