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Safety and Health in the Horse-Racing Industry

Categories: Sports and Entertainment

jockeys racing horsesThe incident at Churchill Downs earlier this week is a reminder of the dangers involved in the horseracing industry. Most of the news coverage was focused on the tragedy involving the horses. Fortunately, according to reports, the jockey and exercise rider involved were not seriously injured. It is estimated that over 146,000 individuals work in the horse-racing industry. This estimate includes jockeys, trainers, exercise riders, grooms, valets, starting gate attendants, apprentice jockeys, and veterinarians. Little is known about the health status or number and nature of injuries and illnesses to workers in this industry. However, there are many risk factors involved when a 115-pound jockey rides an 1,100 pound animal running 40 miles per hour. In addition to the jockey, other workers have their own safety and health considerations. While health issues in the horse-racing industry, particularly those associated with weight reduction for jockeys, have become more recognized, the safety and health concerns in the horse-racing industry as a whole are not well documented.

As we enter the Triple Crown racing season, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) just released a new document An Overview of Safety and Health for Workers in the Horse-Racing Industry. The NIOSH research and the resulting document were generated in response to a request from the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce.

To address the request, NIOSH conducted a review of the available safety and health literature on thoroughbred and standardbred horse-racing; conducted site visits to two racetracks in Lexington, Kentucky (Keeneland Race Course and the North American Racing Academy); completed a fatality investigation; conducted analyses of injury data from relevant data sources; reviewed regulations governing the horse-racing industry in the United States and other countries; and held a public meeting in order to garner concerns about the health and safety of workers in this industry.

The report notes that between the years 1998 and 2006 an estimate of more than 14,000 non-fatal occupational injuries associated with the horse-racing industry were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms. Additionally, 79 deaths occurred to those working in this industry between 1992 and 2006. These numbers are almost certainly underestimates of the true numbers due to inconsistent or lacking reporting systems.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as helmets and vests, worn by all workers in close proximity to horses could help to reduce the severity of injuries and the number of deaths. NIOSH examined regulations from nine horse-racing states and found that all had at least a minimum requirement regarding helmets. However, the rules vary by state in regards to who is required to wear a helmet and when. Safety vests can protect those riding or working around horses from kicks to the abdomen. Five of the six states that require jockeys to wear safety vests also specify that the vest have a shock absorption protection rating of at least 5 as certified by the British Equestrian Trade Association. Riders are also at risk if reins snap during a race. The injuries resulting from the loss of control of a horse can often be very severe. Ohio is the only state examined that mandated the use of safety reins (i.e., reins that are reinforced with a wire cable or nylon strap).

Other safety and health concerns include musculoskeletal disorders, lead exposure from lead plates added to saddles to adjust the weight each horse carries in certain races, short- and long-term health effects from weight reduction behaviors, and potential health concerns due to the release of silica from synthetic race tracks. Efforts to control or regulate safety and health issues in the horse-racing industry are complicated by the fact that jockeys are considered independent contractors, as are many employees associated with horse-racing; and may not be covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

The new document includes recommendations for making the industry a safer place to work. The recommendations are subdivided for industry representatives (race tracks, racing commissions, and horse owners) jockeys, professional associations, and other race track workers.

While the true risk for injuries cannot be fully understood until there is a consistent reporting system across the industry, many opportunities for research exist. As NIOSH continues to monitor the safety and health issues associated with this industry, we would like to hear about emerging safety and health concern you may have.

For more information, visit the NIOSH topic page on safety and health in the horse-racing industry.

Ms. Hendricks is a Research Epidemiologist in the NIOSH Division of Safety Research.

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. May 7, 2009 at 9:30 pm ET  -   Robert Colton

    First of all, thank you Kitty for an outstanding report. Your committee was quickly able to ignore the politics and dive into our safety issues. This was no small feat with such a dysfunctional industry. Your report concluded with a very simple road map to help address the current and future safety issues. Hopefully the horse racing industry is finally starting to take safety seriously. Thanks for all your hard work!

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  2. May 8, 2009 at 10:22 am ET  -   Deborah Thompson

    This is a great start but let me tell you as a former horse breeder, you seem to be leaving out one important area – foot protection. I have been stomped on many times, and even a foal can do serious damage. Steel toed shoes need to be strongly considered as a safety requirement.

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  3. May 15, 2009 at 4:26 pm ET  -   Michael McCann, PhD, CIH

    As I stated in my post-hearing statement, I had been around many race tracks, especially as a teenager and younger since my father trained race horses. Since then I have specialized in occupational health and safety, especially construction. Horse racing has some similarities to construction in that racing moves from site to site as different race tracks have their racing dates, and there are multiple employers as each horse trainer hires his own barn workers. Organized safety is non-existent in the barn areas where almost all work except actual racing and exercising of horses occurs.

    I have several recommendations for further action:

    1.NIOSH should establish an advisory committee for health and safety at race tracks.
    2.At present the only safety inspections done at race tracks are do ne by fire departments and I am not sure how frequent this is done. NIOSH or other researchers should conduct inspections of race track barn areas in particular to observe track workers (e.g., trainers, grooms, horse walkers and exercisers, farriers (who shoe horses), veterinarians) and interviews with these workers to identify hazards and possible solutions. In my experience, this can include fire hazards, electrical hazards, biological hazards (e.g., moldy hay and straw is very common), young worker hazards, and safety hazards in working around horses( falling off while riding, being stepped on, bit, kicked or knocked around by the much heavier horses—especially in confined stalls). An example of a solution to being stepped on might be safety shoes. Ideally, race track owners should be required to conduct such safety inspections since they own the barn areas and have major responsibility.
    3.Safety training programs need to be developed and an adequate safety climate established.
    4.The present investigations focused on thoroughbred racing where jockeys ride directly on horses. Harness racing, where standardbred horses pull sulkies, lightweight 2-wheeled carts (see [http://www.ustrotting.com/services/breed/harness.cfm]) is another type of racing which needs investigation. Collision involving carts and horses can easily involve several horses and jockeys with serious results.

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  4. May 20, 2009 at 12:33 pm ET  -   Sheila M. Hall, CIH

    Not only is the work environment dangerous, some of the living quarters at the race track do not even meet OSHA’s Temporary Labor Camps standard, 29 CFR 1910.142 for square footage or conditions. Again, the issue of independent contractors makes the requirements difficult to enforce.

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  5. May 26, 2009 at 11:41 am ET  -   Karin J. Opacich, PhD, MHPE, OTR/L, FAOTA

    As a particpant-observer-researcher, I commend this NIOSH study group for its recommendations. It is a beginning. In contrast to so many other industries, there is very little published wisdom about safety in horse racing. What does exist pertains largely to the horses and jockeys, a visible but small subset of the workforce. While there is an attempt to establish a scientific basis for decision-making with an equine injury surveillance system (Scollay), there has been little response and no unified effort to examine incidents and injuries for the humans. I do hope that the industry regards the report seriously and at least collaborates to address the myriad issues pertaining to built environment, health behaviors, industry practices, exposures, etc., that also contribute to industry performance.

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  6. October 1, 2009 at 10:20 am ET  -   Ashley

    this is a very informative article. i am glad someone is taking a stand in the safety of horse racing.

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  7. October 25, 2012 at 4:26 am ET  -   Safety Videos

    I was searching for this information since many days as I am very inerested in Horse Racing and faced many problems till now. The information produced in the site provided the solution very accurately regarding my requirement, I would like to thank the members for promoting the blog.

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  8. June 18, 2014 at 10:52 am ET  -   Butch Morris

    Excellent report. More like this please. Australian Quarter horse sector benefits from this documentation of issues.

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  9. July 18, 2014 at 6:20 am ET  -   Ryan Max

    Thank for sharing this post this is a perfect blog for getting best information about of horse racing.

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