Rice is the staple food for Asian people; it is prepared by cooking or ground as flour for bread making, thus helping to feed the rest of the world population. Various kinds of rice are produced to suit the taste of the consumers. Rice cultivation is done either in marshy, lowland areas with plenty of water or in plateau or hilly regions where natural rainfall provides adequate amounts of water.
Rice can be cultivated either by hand or by partial or full mechanization, according to the technological development of the country and the need for productivity. Whatever kind of operation is done, the following step-by-step processes are necessary.
- Ploughing. The land is ploughed in three stages to eliminate lumps and to make soil as soft and muddy as possible. Buffalo, oxen or cows usually pull the ploughs, though the use of mechanical equipment is increasing.
- Weeding is carried out three times by irrigating the land for 5 days at a time and then letting it dry for 5 days. At the end of each cycle, the land is beaten with a heavy wooden tool to kill off young weeds so they may be used as natural fertilizer.
- Preparation of seedlings. The seeds are soaked in a large water-filled jar with appropriate concentrations of salt added to make the healthy seeds sink. These healthy seeds are then thoroughly washed, soaked overnight, wrapped in a thick cloth or sack for 2 nights to germinate, sown in the area prepared for them and left to grow for approximately 30 days.
- Transplantation. The young plants, in bunches of 3 to 5, are thrust into the mud in rows and grown for 10 days. After about a total of 45 days, the plant is fully grown and begins to bear seeds.
- Harvesting. When the plant is about 100 days old, it is usually reaped by hand (see figure 1); sickles or similar tools are used for cutting the bearing grains off.
- Drying is done in the open air in the sun, to make the moisture content fall below 15%.
- Threshing separates the grain, with its husk or glume, from the stalk. Traditionally, buffaloes or oxen are used to slowly drag the threshing combs over the stalk to force out the grain. Many places use locally made machines for this.
- Storage. Grains and hays are stored in barns or silos.
Common and specific hazards are as follows:
- Poor housing, low sanitary standards, inadequate nourishment and the need to drink large quantities of water, which is not always pure, lead to general weakness and fatigue, possible sunstroke, intestinal troubles and diarrhoea.
- Most injuries caused by farm machinery occur when the workers are not familiar with the machines. Muscles, bones and joints are intensively used, both in dynamic and static loads, causing physical fatigue and resulting in the reduction of work capacity and an increase in traumatic injuries and accidents. Children and adolescents, as well as migrant workers, die from farm injuries each year.
- Chemical agents, such as fertilizers, strong weedkillers, pesticides and other extensively used substances, increase the hazards both for the workers and the animal or plant foods they consume (e.g., fish, field crabs, water plants, mushrooms, medicinal herbs, field rats or even contaminated water).
- Diseases (e.g., malaria, tetanus, hookworm, schistosomiasis, leptospirosis, hay fever, farmer’s lung, dermatitis, blepharitis, conjunctivitis, common cold and sunstroke) are very common, as are nutritional disorders (e.g., protein deficiency, toxins), alcoholism, heavy smoking and other addictive habits.
- The most common occupational diseases are skin diseases. These include: redness and blisters from prickly rice leaves; abrasions and skin injuries caused by prickly plants; calluses of the palms, hands, knees and elbows caused by bad posture and the use of hand tools; skin fungal infections (tinea) due to epidermophytes and Monilia (candida), which may be complicated by secondary sensitization, redness and blisters, frequently due to Staphylococcus bacteria; vesicular dermatitis (small blisters) on the feet sometimes attributed to Rhizopus parasiticus; itch commonly caused by the penetration of the skin by Ancylostoma (hookworms); schistosome dermatitis caused directly or indirectly by contact with water containing blood flukes from nonhuman hosts; and redness, blisters and oedema resulting from insect stings.
- Respiratory diseases due to organic and inorganic dusts and synthetic chemicals are common. Gram-negative bacterial endotoxin levels in air are high in some countries. Silage gas poisoning of high nitrate soils is also a health problem.
- Climatic agents such as heat, heavy rain, humidity, high wind, storms and lightning strike both workers and cattle.
- Psychological stress factors such as economic problems, sense of insecurity, lack of social standing, lack of educational opportunities, lack of prospects and risk of unexpected calamities are particularly common in the developing countries.
Safety and Health Measures
Working conditions should be improved and the health hazards reduced through increased mechanization. Ergonomic interventions to organize the work and working equipment, and systematic training of the body and its movements to ensure good working methods, are essential.
Necessary medical preventive methods should be strictly applied, including the introduction of first aid instruction, the provision of treatment facilities, health promotion campaigns and medical surveillance of workers.
Improvement of housing, sanitary standards, accessible potable water, nutritional environmental hygiene and economic stability are essential for the quality of life of rice field workers.
Applicable International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions and Recommendations should be followed. These include:
- The Minimum Age (Agriculture) Convention, 1921 (No.10), provides that children under the age of 14 years may not be employed or work in any public or private agricultural undertakings, or in any branch thereof, when school is in session.
- The Night Work of Children and Young Persons (Agriculture) Recommendation, 1921 (No.14), requires that each Member State regulate the employment of children under the age of 14 years in agricultural tasks at night, leaving not less than 10 consecutive hours for them to rest. For young persons between the age of 14 and 18 years, the period of rest must consist of not less than 9 consecutive hours.
- The Plantations Convention, 1958 (No.110), provides that every recruited worker shall be medically examined. This Convention is obviously of great importance for workers of all ages.
- The Maximum Weight Convention, 1967 (No.127), identified optimum loads that can be handled by 90% of workers for all routine and repetitive manual-handling tasks.