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Occupational safety on the horse farm

Occupational safety on the horse farm

by Claire Hutkins Seda, Migrant Clinicians Network, Managing Editor, Streamline

[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on MCN’s active blog, “Clinician-to-Clinician: A Forum for Health Justice,” where we share updates on MCN projects and partners, news stories, and more in the world of health justice for the mobile poor. Please visit and sign up for our blog at] 


Agriculture remains the most dangerous industry in the US, yet agricultural workers are afforded fewer protections than workers in other industries. Immigrants may not have sufficient training on the hazards they encounter at work, and the risks they face vary greatly: a worker picking blueberries in a field has different challenges than a worker milking cows at a dairy farm.  To address this wide range of occupational hazards, MCN has developed targeted resources and outreach materials for different types of agriculture, including resources specially for immigrant dairy workers.1  Other groups are similarly focused on the specific needs of subgroups of agricultural workers; in Kentucky, for example, the Latino Thoroughbred Farm Worker Health and Safety Study is looking in-depth at thoroughbred horse farms. 

“In Kentucky, one of the three largest industries is the thoroughbred industry, which includes businesses that breed, raise, sell, and race thoroughbred horses,” explained Jennifer Swanberg, PhD, professor at University of Maryland School of Social Work and principal investigator of the Latino Thoroughbred Farm Worker Health and Safety Study.  The thoroughbred farm workforce, say the researchers, is largely understudied and is increasingly comprised of immigrant Latino workers.

In 2009, Dr. Swanberg’s Institute for Workplace Innovation, which aimed to improve the quality of workplaces in Kentucky, decided to conduct a pilot study exploring health and safety issues for workers on crop and horse farms. They enlisted Jessica Clouser, MPH, from the University of Kentucky College of Public Health and now project manager and co-principal investigator of the thoroughbred study, to interview Latino agricultural workers to determine what types of health and safety issues they may be encountering. At first, the researchers targeted workers on both thoroughbred horse farms and crop farms; eventually they narrowed their focus to just the horse farms.

“Our study results indicated that workers in the horse industry were exposed to aspects of the work environment that increased their risk to injury,” Dr. Swanberg said. The researchers discovered that workers experienced injuries as a result of working with large animals and had heightened respiratory issues. Additionally, as farm managers turn to immigrant labor for help, “it’s creating management challenges, [as a result of] the cultural and language barriers,” noted Clouser. “The industry is strongly dependent on this worker group,” Clouser said, but the study demonstrated that “the industry is experiencing challenges and [industry leaders] want help in overcoming them.” The study also found that the quality of relationship with the supervisor mattered in the level of risk for the worker, added Clouser. 

“Results from this initial pilot study informed the development of a much larger study that would systematically examine the occupational safety and health issues of Latinos on thoroughbred horse farms,” Dr. Swanberg said. The resulting five-year study, just entering its final year, is funded by the CDC’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and works to engage the farm to impact farmworker health. The researchers used two advisory councils to guide the process, one with representatives from the industry and one with members of the Latino community and the outreach partners and service providers who serve it. The study’s output is extensive. When Clouser asked farm managers what they wanted from they study, they asked for the findings of the research, a better understanding of what other farms are doing, and more tools and resources to assist their farmworkers. Consequently, three major categories of tools are being developed:

Research briefs. As the findings of the research came out, the group provided research briefs both to farm managers and to outreach and service providers who work with Latino workers, to disseminate what the research is revealing, including information on the types of injuries that occur on horse farms and the circumstances of those injuries. Many of the research briefs are already available online and several more will be released in the coming year.2

Promising practices reports. From the in-depth interviews  conducted with thoroughbred farm managers, the researchers are developing a report sharing practices employed by farms to address both health and safety and management issues. These will be distributed to farm management. Thirty-two farms participated in the survey, and 26 of them continued on to complete an “in-depth interview that lasted between one and four hours,” covering a wide range of questions about their operations, their workforce, and the injuries they’ve seen, Clouser noted, to fill out a full picture of their operations. “One farm enacted safety teams,” said Clouser. “They have safety meetings [where] they’ll have a representative from each division across the farm,” and from each level of the farm, from workers in a non-supervisory position to farm managers. “They meet quarterly and they discuss issues that they’ve found regarding safety on the farm,” she explained. The group reviews injury reports and assigns an underlying cause and underlying prevention strategy, she said, and they work to change farm policy if needed. These promising practices reports will be disseminated to farms in the region, and they will be available on their website.

Graphic safety materials. The researchers are assembling a working group consisting of farm managers, a human resources manager from a local thoroughbred farm, and workers’ compensation and insurance representatives to begin developing low-literacy and bilingual materials on health and safety for workers on horse farms. These pieces will be developed in this final year of the project and will also be available on the website in Fall 2016.

Community involvement has been key. “This project was very focused on community participatory principles,” Clouser emphasized. “We worked really hard to get both industry and organizational representation of people who are concerned about the workers themselves, and the health of Latinos.”  Swanberg added, “When I step back to see what’s unique and has been successful about this project, it’s that we’ve been able to work with both sets of communities and both have been equally as valuable in the success of this project.”

Learn more about the Thoroughbred Worker Health and Safety Study and access their materials at their website,



1 MCN and National Farm Medicien Center Seguridad training is available at:

2 View the Thoroughbred Worker Health and Safety Study’s issue briefs at: