Statistics are wondrous things. Spin them one way and you can prove just about anything. Spin them another way and you can prove the opposite.

A case in point: working on a farm. Conventional wisdom holds that farming is the most hazardous job in the country. But is it?

A few days ago the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released preliminary results of the agency’s National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2009. According to the report, working in agriculture is the country’s most hazardous job—or it isn’t. (The report does not list working in agriculture as a separate "industry sector," which accounts for part of the confusion. Agriculture is lumped together with forestry, fishing, and hunting in the industry sector statistics.)

When you look at the total number of fatal work injuries by sector, construction turns out to be the most dangerous job, with 816 worker deaths in 2009. (The total number of work-related deaths for 2009 was 4,340, a decrease from 2008.) The sector including agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting comes in third, with 551 fatal work-related injuries. But when the numbers are tweaked to show the fatal work injury "rate," which the BLS defines as the number of fatal injuries "per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers," the agriculture, etc., sector ranks first with a fatal injury rate of 26.0. This injury rate is more than twice the rate of mining (the second-highest injury rate at 12.7) and transportation and warehousing (12.1).

The BLS also looks at fatal injury rates for selected occupations within the industry sectors. Drivers/sales workers (I’m not sure what this group does, exactly) and truck drivers had the highest number of fatal injuries, while commercial fishers (fisherpeople to be politically correct?) and related fishing industry workers had the highest fatal work injury rate. Farmers and ranchers ranked second in the number of fatal injuries and fourth in the fatal work injury rate.

"Animal production," a subset of the larger agriculture-forestry-fishing-hunting sector, accounted for 141 work-related deaths in 2009. Even this number, though, is not specific for horse farm workers.

The numbers are confusing, and sometimes contradictory. What is clear, though, is something that everyone who has worked in agriculture already knows: farming is dangerous.

There are government agencies responsible for just about everything, and workplace safety is no exception. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), either at the federal or state level, is the agency charged with maintaining worker safety. OSHA regulations are a maze of legal gobbledegook, but the rules come down to a couple of simple principles that are good, common sense:

Employers have a legal obligation to "furnish to each employee a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious injury."

Employees have a legal right to "expect a place of employment free from recognized health and safety hazards."

These are obligations and rights in Kentucky; other state statutes have similar language. Employers who put their employees at risk are subject to penalties.

A few years ago, a prominent Central Kentucky Thoroughbred farm was fined by OSHA for using a banned and dangerous pesticide to kill troublesome birds nesting in the rafters of barns. Maintenance workers who reportedly were not warned of the risks and who had no protective gear were exposed to the pesticide when they were preparing the barns for painting.

Maintaining a safe workplace is not just a good idea, it is an ongoing legal obligation for employers. Release of the BLS statistics is a good reminder to evaluate the conditions on farms that you own or operate. What are you doing to provide a safe workplace for your farm workers?