Every day, more than 10,000 people go to work on Kentucky Thoroughbred farms, taking care of high-strung 1,000-pound animals, often in close quarters. But nobody seems to know how dangerous this work might be, keep statistics on accidents, or share methods that prevent them.
This fall, the University of Kentucky has launched a multiyear study of the health and safety practices associated with the diverse workforce of the Thoroughbred industry, one of the state's top agricultural enterprises.
The Thoroughbred Worker Health and Safety Study will be funded by a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as part of the UK Southeast Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention.
"I think there's always been an issue with farm safety," said Scott Mallory of Mallory Farm and president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club. "And I believe this study will kind of help show where we need some education and help some reforms along, and maybe form a resource for them to go to get the help they need."
Farm work is inherently full of risks, as is working with horses.
"I think everybody knows agriculture is one of our more dangerous industries," said Jennifer Swanberg, professor of social work and executive director of the Institute for Workplace Innovation at UK.
Swanberg is leading the study, designed to find ways to improve horse farm safety and provide those resources free to horse farms.
"When you talk to farm owners and managers ... safety and health are primary concerns," Swanberg said. "This was an area we identified that could help the industry."
There will be three phases:
■ In-depth interviews with farm owners, managers and human resources personnel about safety issues;
■ Interviews with Thoroughbred farm workers recruited off-site, confidentially, about concerns;
■ Analysis of the data to determine what resources can be developed by UK to help improve safety.
"The premise of the study is to identify safety and health concerns of owners and farms, and identify promising practices that farms can put in practice for those issues," Swanberg said.
She said she is encouraged that so many Thoroughbred industry groups and farms are eager to partner with the study.
"I think any time you talk about the health and safety of an industry, it can be perceived as a touchy subject," Swanberg said.
But about 40 farms have agree to participate and a broad-based board from the Thoroughbred industry and from the farm-worker community will review all results. Information will be shared with all horse farms.
"I think it's a study that needs to be done so we can make the workplace as safe as it should be," said Mallory, of Windfields. "Obviously, when you're dealing with animals, you need to be prepared."
Mallory said that people aren't always as well-trained in safety, and that's when problems can happen. The most common injuries he sees are horses stepping on feet.
David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, said the KTOBA is also participating in the project.
"I'm told one of the biggest claims is for back injury, from lifting 50-pound bales of straw and not doing it properly," Switzer said.
"We're all concerned about the health and welfare of the horse," Switzer said. "Well, then, we ought to be concerned about the health of our employees as well."