Health and safety at work: How can the number of work-related illnesses be reduced by information and prevention?

Between January 22nd to 24th, 2021, a seminar took place in Rome (Italy) on the subject of "Health and safety at work: How can the number of work-related illnesses be reduced by information and prevention?", organised by ICRA Europe (International Catholic Rural Association Europe), with the support of EZA and the European Union.

The seminar papers have shown how the development process that characterises the economy of each country, in general, a progressive decline in the weight of agriculture on the gross domestic product (GDP) of individual countries and a containment of the percentage of employees in this sector compared to the total number of employees.

However, agriculture is a strategic sector for any country's economy and this specificity requires attention in order to achieve food security for the population. In addition, it not only produces primary goods for food, but also extends its radius of action to the production of public goods, goods of a collective nature, such as the landscape, biodiversity, etc.

The land on which productive activity is carried out must therefore not be seen as a territory to be exploited without differentiation, but as a place where sustainable development, respect for nature and the environment according to those of Pope Francis should be implemented in the encyclical "Laudato sì".

Total agricultural employment in Europe is 8,347,000 workers aged 15 to 64, of whom 32% are women. Paid employment is partly carried out by foreign workers, who are mostly employed in seasonal, low-skilled jobs and who are also more often in a precarious state with regard to the contractual security. Around one million foreign workers work in agriculture in European countries, mostly at low wages. This large number of foreigners, especially from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, shows that European agriculture depends on this type of seasonal workers, who unfortunately cannot always count on legitimate rights, even though they have the same dignity and under European law equal rights must be treated as everyone else.

Analysing the various situations, it emerged that agriculture is a sector that provides employment for the most vulnerable and fragile in society. The job offer is also aimed at older people and those who are willing to do extra work.

The reference to the agricultural labour market shows us a segmented reality. Indeed, in addition to white-collar workers, there are also, and mostly, the self-employed (direct farmers) and, in turn, those who turn agriculture into a refuge sector. Until a few decades ago, the farmer's profession was mostly relegated to people with little education.

But recently that reality has changed with the entry of workers with educational qualifications, diplomas and even university degrees. In addition, there has been an influx of young people into the sector, a very important phenomenon given that those employed in this sector are mostly of older age groups.

Work in agriculture has peculiarities that distinguish it from other sectors: it takes place outdoors, in greenhouses and in the habitats of farm animals. Working in agriculture requires a certain degree of professionalism due to the variety of functions performed. Agricultural professionalism has long been used in an exclusively productive sense. But with the introduction of Legislative Decree 228 of 2001 in Italy, the agricultural operator is granted the ability to deal with other tasks such as environmental protection, agrotourism, landscape.

In this way, agriculture is assigned its multifunctional role, which is reflected in the farmers’ acquisition of new skills to carry out his job.

The situation of agricultural work described in this way in its evolutionary aspects will be influenced by some phenomena on a global level, such as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, climate change and digitization.

Another important topic discussed at the seminar was the safety of farm workers.

The analysis showed that fatal accidents in the agricultural and forestry sector account for a high proportion of the total number of occupational accidents, while the proportion of the total number of non-fatal accidents is lower.

All the elements considered show that agricultural workers must also be protected with regard to the risks inherent in agricultural activity.

What are the main risks for farm workers? The following categories have been identified

- Risks related to the use of agro-pharmaceuticals

- Risks related to the use of machines

- Risks associated with working outdoors in adverse weather conditions

- Risks associated with handling loads

Particular attention was paid to the question of the (ab)use of pesticides as a characteristic element of agriculture.

The European Union has developed a structured and complex set of rules in this area:

- Reg. (EC) 1107/2009 - on the introduction/use of plant protection products

- Directive 2009/128 / EC - is the framework directive on the sustainable use of agro-pharmaceuticals.

In Italy in particular, Directive 2009/128/CE was implemented by Legislative Decree 150 of 2012, from which the NATIONAL ACTION PLAN (PAN) emerged.

This document defines the objectives, measures, timetables and indicators for reducing the risks and effects of the use of plant protection products. The National Action Plan came into force in 2014 and is to be replaced by the NEW Plan in a few months.

What does the new National Action Plan envisage?

- Intensification of training activities (increasing the number of workers with a "green drivers’ license").

- Increase in the number of controls on sprayers

- Increase in the number of areas farmed with ecological and integrated methods

- Protect consumers and increase biodiversity

- Reduction of the environmental impact and the risk for agricultural operators

- Reduction of the use of the most harmful agro-pharmaceuticals.

In relation to the last objective, the table shows the data on the consumption of agro-pharmaceuticals at European level:


The analysis shows that sales have been very stable over the last 10 years and this is an element that Community policy intends to act on in the next programming period. In fact, with the "Farm to Fork" strategy, the European decision-maker wants to achieve a number of goals by 2030, including a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides.

Farming is potentially the best job in the world. It takes place mainly outdoors, it follows natural cycles and is therefore related to the environment; it is based on the production of food, an indispensable element for humanity. It also has a positive social impact as the farm not only produces food but also provides environmental, recreational and public services.

It is also dangerous work that involves risks. The number of accidents and occupational diseases is still very high. The legislature has enacted a number of regulations to limit risks and thus increase safety in the workplace. These rules are used for training, prevention and control. Political decision-makers are also implementing stricter measures with regard to the use of pesticides. On the one hand, this may make it possible to achieve the goals set, but on the other hand it will certainly lead to an increase in production costs and more bureaucracy for the company. The bureaucratic burden associated with implementing these rules has a greater impact on the small businesses that make up the European fabric of production.

The question we asked in the seminar was how to strike a balance between the need to protect health and the environment (environmental sustainability) and the need to produce food at competitive prices for the consumer and profitable for the producer (economic sustainability).

In the coming weeks, the work of in-depth analysis will continue in order to identify concrete actions of the engagement.

The role of ICRA in the fight against occupational diseases and accidents can be summarised in a twofold perspective:

1. Research - at this stage it is essential that ICRA further deepen the issues related to occupational diseases and accidents. This in-depth study must, on the one hand, analyse the situation in Europe from a statistical-numerical point of view and, on the other hand, deepen the sociological and communicative aspect associated with these phenomena. Researching and understanding the sociological aspect of the subject is essential in order to be able to actively contribute to improving the situation of workers. It is equally important to understand what and where are the communication gaps that lead to the dramatic spread of occupational diseases and accidents at work. Without communication, many workers do not know what to expect in their working life, with inevitable negative health consequences.

2. Dissemination - for this stage it is important that ICRA continue to develop new and increasingly modern ways to reach workers from a communication point of view. Indeed, it is only through a careful study of innovative communication technologies that it will be possible to reduce the gap in the information provided to workers that inevitably causes them to be exposed to occupational diseases and accidents. It should be borne in mind that the drama of these pathologies lies in the fact that they can appear during the period of employment or even several years after the end of risky work. This phase is doubly important because it is the lever that enables social dialogue to be improved by involving all appropriate stakeholders in the virtuous communication and dissemination channel. The social dialogue is, by definition, a fundamental part of the European social model, as it enables the social partners to actively contribute, including through agreements, to the definition of European social and employment policy. What better opportunity to improve workers' health? By developing tables that correlate agricultural work with occupational diseases and their symptoms, the aim is to try to better inform workers in this sector and to reduce the number of developed occupational diseases.