Unseen health risks on farms

Farmers face many health hazards at work every day, from pesticides to noisy machinery, and the risk of ill-health is more common than you think. WorkSafe principal advisor for work-related health Sue Cotton talks us through some of the risks and how to avoid them.

Farming is seen as a healthy lifestyle, offering time outdoors, physical activity and a variety of work. But everyday tasks can expose farmers to a range of health hazards. Some hazards might not seem obvious but can have serious effects on health over time.

The key to looking after yourself and fulfilling basic responsibilities to staff is being aware of health hazards and taking steps to reduce exposure. 

Toxic agrichemicals

Exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers is a common health hazard on farm. There is considerable evidence that longterm, low-level exposure to agrichemicals can be toxic to the nervous system — affecting mental processing and memory and increasing the risk of anxiety and depression.

To reduce your risk of illness from agrichemicals:

  • use, store and dispose of agrichemicals correctly according to the label
  • use suitable protective equipment and clothing (like gloves, masks and protective eyewear) to protect skin, eyes, nose and mouth, and prevent inhalation
  • wash and properly maintain protective equipment and clothing.

In a recent survey of New Zealand agricultural workers, 63 percent reported they’d come in contact with pesticides but only half used gloves and even fewer used safety goggles. Wearing a respirator when spreading fertiliser is important but is likely to be even less common. 

Loud noise

Loud noise can have serious and permanent long-term effects on hearing, and this is a common problem in dairy farming. Hearing loss can have a major impact on both work and social life, leading to isolation and depression. Loud noise can also lead to tinnitus, a persistent ringing or buzzing in the ears.

Farm noise comes from many different sources, such as vehicles, tools, pumps, compressors, animals and firearms. It is intermittent rather than constant. Recent research shows more than half of farmers and farm workers are exposed to enough noise each day to cause gradual hearing loss.

To reduce your risk of noise-induced hearing loss:

  • buy quieter tools and equipment when you next replace them
  • keep machinery well-maintained, and line noisy components with rubber or other dampening material
  • wear hearing protection in noisy environments – and make sure it fits properly. 


Diseases transmitted by animals are another health hazard in dairy farming. Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection caught from the urine of infected animals. This can be through direct contact with urine or indirectly through contaminated soil or water.

A mild infection causes flu-like symptoms, while more serious cases can result in months off work, long-term kidney and liver problems, fatigue and depression.

To reduce your chances of getting leptospirosis:

  • make sure animals are vaccinated
  • control rats and mice
  • practise good personal hygiene, such as washing and drying your hands and face thoroughly after handling livestock and before drinking, eating or smoking, and keep cuts and abrasions covered
  • use protective equipment provided. 


Fatigue is a risk on dairy farms and not always recognised as a health concern. Long, tiring bouts of work might be part of farming life, but getting good rest and maintaining a worklife balance is essential. While fatigue can cause or worsen physical and mental health problems, it can also affect work performance.

Overtired people are less productive and more likely to have accidents, harming people, equipment and property.

To reduce fatigue on your farm:

  • review work rosters and work hours (visit dairynz.co.nz/rosters(external link) for information about building a roster that best suits your farm)
  • rotate early starts between staff
  • get adequate rest and exercise
  • maintain a healthy diet.

As an example, state-owned enterprise Landcorp was able to better manage fatigue among staff when it changed its working roster on some dairy farms from 11 days on and three off, to a four-two system. After a three-month trial, workers felt better, were able to enjoy life more, and had more time with their families. Production went up and injury rates dropped.

Another option is to run an alternating two-week roster system: five days on and one off in the first week; six days on and two off in the second week. If your staff like having three days off in a row, perhaps offer them six on and three off, then four on and one off. 

Get more help

  1. Find out more about getting health and safety sorted on the farm, go to dairynz.co.nz/healthandsafety(external link).
  2. To learn about how New Zealand dairy farmers stack up across four categories – wellness behaviour, physical wellness, mental wellness, and capability and awareness – check out our Wellbeing Dashboard at dairynz.co.nz/dashboard(external link).
  3. For help creating the best roster for your farm, head to dairynz.co.nz/rosters(external link).
  4. WorkSafe has more information on work-related health on its website

Key points

  1. Dairy farming presents many health hazards and these can cause serious effects over time.
  2. Most work-related ill-health is preventable if you take basic steps to manage the risks.
  3. Looking after health and safety is a smart long-term investment in your business.