OPINION: How to Enhance Safety of Workers in Irrigation Projects

By HSE East Africa | Monday Sep 25, 2017

Agriculture is the mainstay of the Kenyan economy directly contributing 26 per cent of the GDP annually, and another 25 per cent indirectly. The sector accounts for 65 per cent of Kenya’s total exports and provides more than 70 per cent of informal employment in the rural areas. Therefore, the agricultural sector is not only the driver of Kenya’s economy but also the means of livelihood for the majority of Kenyan people.

Kenya is banking on several irrigation projects to among other things reduce food insecurity by 30 per cent and increase contribution of agriculture to the GDP by more than KES 80 billion per year as provided in the country's Vision 2030.

Kenya has an estimated irrigation potential of 1.3 million ha. Currently, 114,600 ha of irrigation accounting for only 1.7 per cent have been developed. 540,000 ha of the available irrigation potential can be developed with the available water resources, while the rest of the area will require water harvesting and storage. 

The developed irrigation potential can be categorized into three main types: 

  • smallholder schemes, 49,000 ha (43 per cent); 
  • public / national schemes, 20,600 ha (18 per cent); 
  • private schemes, 45,000 ha (39 per cent). 

The remaining potential of over 424,400 ha of irrigation requires increased focus to utilize this potential. Irrigation can increase agricultural production by up to 300 per cent and create jobs at the rate of up to 15 persons per acre directly and indirectly. Irrigation could also guarantee a reliable supply of raw materials for agro-industries and improve national security by creating opportunities for the youth to be economically engaged while stemming rural–urban migration. 

Agriculture is one of the most hazardous occupations worldwide. In several countries the fatal accident rate in agriculture is double the average for all other industries. According to ILO estimates, workers suffer 250 million accidents every year. Out of a total of 335,000 fatal workplace accidents worldwide, there are some 170,000 deaths among agricultural workers. According to the National Profile on Occupational Safety and Health- Kenya, the statistics for annual occupational accidents for the financial year 2010-2011 indicated agriculture and related activities having a total of 1364 accidents (14 fatal accidents and 1350 non-fatal accidents).  

The Occupational safety and health challenges associated with irrigation projects must be addressed for the government to realize and achieve the vision 2030 objectives. The occupational accidents, occupational diseases and ill health suffered by the farmers are likely to bring down the production in agriculture due to loss of working hours and high medical expenses incurred.  Properly articulated policy framework on how to address these challenges would also make the projects more appealing to potential investors and donors to facilitate the projects under the Vision 2030. 

The following are some crucial steps that can be taken by the government and stakeholders to ensure safety of workers in the agriculture sector with emphasis on irrigation projects.

1. Training of Farmers

Many farmers are unaware of their obligations, rights and responsibilities and fail to comply with such Occupational Safety and Health legislation that does exist.   The prevalence of seasonal and casual labour along with the added constraints of illiteracy is more in rural areas.  

Training on occupational safety and health is important to make sure that the farmers and workers in the agricultural schemes are familiar with the risk they are working with or exposed to.  The Directorate of Occupational Safety and Health Services (DOSHS) through the County Safety and Health Officers should carry out training in all the irrigation schemes. Other agricultural training resources should also help in dissemination of the required information.

Farmers should be fully informed of the increased risks to OSH faced by young workers in agriculture. They should ensure that young workers are trained in safe work procedures and demonstrate their ability to perform tasks safely before being assigned to do so. Young workers should be closely supervised and any unsafe work practices immediately corrected. Employers should ensure that children below the age of legal employment are not employed in agriculture, whether or not accompanied by a parent.

2. Integrated pest management to control exposure on chemicals

Integrated pest management in which several modalities are used to control pest infestations such as chemical crop protection agents, cultivation techniques, biological controls, crop or pasture rotations, and/or other practices, may be useful in reducing exposures. 

 Pesticides and other hazardous chemicals might be used in ways that have the potential to be a risk not only to farmers, but also to the population in the vicinity of the use of the chemicals and to the general environment. The use of such chemicals should additionally be controlled in accordance with the national law and practice or international standards.

Substitution of high hazard pesticides with low hazard pesticides should be considered on a continuous basis.

3. Adequate allocation of Resources to the enforcing bodies.

In particular, the enforcing agencies like the Directorate of Occupational Safety and Health services are often inadequately resourced. Farmers and the agricultural workers may live in areas where roads are non-existent or inadequate and transportation is difficult.

The government should  provide adequate resources in terms of  human resource and transport facilities, the enforcing agencies rarely if ever visit rural enterprises such as farms unless transport is provided. It is therefore vital that the department have adequate resources so that officers can routinely visit agricultural farms and that they are adequately trained and instructed about OSH in agriculture.

4. Provision of health services to the farmers

Medical examination on farmers should be encouraged and those handling/using chemicals should be examined at a subsidized cost. They should be encouraged by the relevant authorities to report any occurrence of accidents and occupational diseases. This will effectively help in addressing possible causes of this accidents and providing control measures. Since most of agricultural works is done by women they have a high incidence of injuries and diseases and are insufficiently reached by health services. Most of them have practically no education, training or access to information on the risks involved in their work. Therefore, the health services should be made available in the schemes.

5. Provision of safe equipment by Manufacturers and suppliers  

Manufacturers of machinery, equipment, chemicals and other products intended for use in agriculture should as far as reasonably practicable, ensure that their products are designed and manufactured so that they present minimal OSH risks to those who use them correctly; provide instructions in the language of the user for the safe installation, storage, use and maintenance of those products; and provide information in the language of the user about any residual hazards, including appropriate warning labels and other markings. Chemicals should be accompanied by chemical safety data sheets and containers should be suitably labeled. 

6. Carrying out Risk assessment

 The key to improving safety and health in agriculture is to manage risks by assessing them systematically and to implement preventive actions based on the assessment. It is sometimes difficult to explain to farmers that a risk assessment is nothing more than a careful examination of what could cause harm to workers, and to make decisions on whether the precautions taken are adequate or whether more should be done to prevent harm. The aim is to make sure that no one gets hurt or becomes ill.

Farmers often have limited resources but once identified, some risks require minimal direct cost. Once risks are identified and prioritized, a plan can be developed to use available resources to address the greatest need first. Ideally the aim is to eliminate hazards, but often that is not practical. However the farmer can make sure e.g. that machinery has adequate guards and that personal protection equipment is readily available for essential risk reduction activities such as noise and dust exposure. 

7. Provision of Personal Protective equipment at Subsidized Prices by the Government.

The Government should include personal protective equipment used by farmers in the list of subsidized items that currently includes seeds, fertilizer and farm machinery. This would allow farmers to concentrate on the productivity of their farms having considered all possible precautions. Farmers should be trained on the proper use and maintenance of PPE. DOSHS should then ensure strict enforcement of OSHA provisions to ensure all workers exposed to hazards are provided with adequate PPE. 

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