Possible or probable? MDH tracks potential farm-related injuries to prevent future risks

Possible or probable? MDH tracks potential farm-related injuries to prevent future risks


While farmers and farmworkers have one of the highest rates of severe injury and even death on the job, our understanding of these injuries isn’t as complete. Current data doesn’t fully capture the extent of injuries that happen on the farm, meaning injuries may go under-reported, leading to a gap in the true scale of risks and challenges faced by those working in agriculture.

Dr. Erik Zabel, epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and Program Director for the Center for Occupational Health and Safety, is setting out to change that with a tool to better track injuries that happen on the farm and pinpoint potential risks.

In his work, Zabel takes a unique approach by examining illness and injury data from hospitals to better identify injuries potentially related to farming. By categorizing injuries as those that may be related to farming (possible) and those that are likely related to farming (probable), Zabel’s tool helps track patterns and identify specific hazards associated with farm-related injuries. Using this information can allow for improved measures to reduce risks and prevent future incidents on the farm.

(may or may not be related to farming):

  • Animal care
  • Animal contact
  • Riding an animal, or occupant of animal-drawn vehicle

(Likely related to farming):

  • Contact with agricultural machinery
  • Farm as the place the injury happened
  • Occupant of a special agriculture vehicle injured in transport accident

Key Findings

  • Minnesota's number of farm-related injury hospital visits declined from 2016 to 2020.
  • Almost one-third of the injuries occurred in older (over 65) and younger (<16) workers.
  • Most farm-related injury hospital visits in this study were emergency visits and were not paid by worker’s compensation.

Currently, one limitation of farm injury data is it largely depends on how hospitals take notes and the injury in their system. In the future, the hospital injury codes could be revised and even combined into a farm safety indicator, like the one Zabel developed, to more accurately track the number of farm injuries over time.

These findings could reveal whether safety programs have helped reduce the number of injuries and where they are most needed.

It is encouraging that farm injuries have declined over time. However, we know the number of people engaged in farming in Minnesota has also declined, so we are working on appropriate denominators to examine the rate of injuries over time. This will help us determine whether safety programs and initiatives are helping reduce injuries in this dangerous profession/way of life.

Dr. Erik Zabel, PhD, MPH, Epidemiologist
Minnesota Department of Health

Age is more than a number...

Agriculture has a higher percentage of workers who are under age 16 or over 65.  This presents unique challenges and opportunities for safety intervention as these groups tend to have higher risk of injuries.

UMASH is turning research like Zabel's into action to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of farmers, workers, and families. Zabel’s findings highlight the importance of ongoing safety initiatives at UMASH that look at unique challenges faced by older and younger populations in agriculture.

Erik ZabelErik Zabel, PhD, MPH
Minnesota Department of Health

Dr. Erik Zabel studies health and safety on farms. In his work, he looks at data about injuries and illnesses from hospitals to understand which injuries likely happened on farms. Using hospital discharge data (diagnosis codes and e-codes), Erik is tracking farm injuries by developing a farm safety indicator. A farm safety indicator could be used to identify potential risks and accurately track the number of farm injuries over time, which would provide insight into whether safety programs have helped reduce the number of injuries, and target where workplace interventions may be helpful.

Dr. Zabel completed his Master’s in Public Health (MPH) at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.