Chemical Safety for Those on the Farm


Advertisers and story books portray farm life as peaceful, serene, slow-paced and safe. However, things are not quite as rosy as they seem.

On the farm, accidents kill approximately 1,000 farm workers each year, and cause around 120,000 disabling injuries.

Experts and statistics agree that farm tractor roll-overs are the biggest reason for deaths and injuries on the farm, but second is the danger from exposure to farm chemicals.

March 13 to 19 is Agricultural Safety Week in Canada, followed by National Poison Prevention Week March 20 to 26 in the United States, making this a good time to consider chemical safety on the farm.

There are three major hazards from farm chemicals. These are anhydrous ammonia, toxic gases and pesticides.

1. Anhydrous ammonia: This commonly used fertilizer is a liquid when stored under pressure in the applicator tank, but becomes a gas when it’s released into the soil. If this gas gets into the air it can be dangerous. The proper use of personal protective equipment and frequent servicing of equipment are your best defenses against accidental exposure.

2. Toxic gases: Grain bins, manure pits and silos are places where the levels of toxic gases produced can cause serious health problems or death. Some of these gases are ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and methane. Ammonia has an extremely sharp odor, is lighter than air, and in small concentrations can cause severe respiratory problems. Carbon dioxide is odorless, heavier than air and can smother workers. Hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs and has the distinction of being the most toxic of gases. Methane is odorless and lighter than air, but in addition to being a serious hazard, is also flammable.

3. Pesticides: This major farm chemical hazard is the most common. Pesticides can be absorbed into the workers’ bodies by inhalation, accidental swallowing and direct contact. The toxic effect of these chemicals depends on the amount and type of exposure. Pesticides are most often absorbed through the skin, but they can be inhaled or ingested into the stomach, both of which allow them greater access to the bloodstream.

Exposure usually occurs when;

  • drift of pesticide spray is excessive.
  • equipment leaks are not corrected immediately.
  • improper or inadequate PPE is used.
  • farm machinery decontamination procedures are not adequate.

The most common fatal mistake involving farm chemicals is storing them in unmarked containers that workers think are food or drink receptacles.