Health & Occupational Safety

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A recent study by health economists at the University of California at Davis and Old Dominion University estimates that over three quarters of all agricultural nonfatal injuries and illnesses are not included in official counts kept by federal agencies. The study, which was published in the April edition of the Annals of Epidemiology, used several sources of data to estimate the undercounting and considered various factors that affect whether or not an injury or illness is ever reported.

The official count of agricultural injuries and illnesses in 2011 on both crop and animal farms, reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 32,100; however, this number does not include injuries or illnesses sustained by workers on farms with less than 11 employees, by contracted workers, or family members. It also does not account for failures to report injuries. When conservative adjustments are made, the estimated number of job-related injuries and illnesses experienced by agricultural workers in 2011 rises to 143,436.

Agricultural injuries and illnesses take many forms from falls, cuts, and lifting injuries to chemical exposures, vehicle and machinery accidents, and even chronic pain associated with repetitive movement and ergonomic issues. These conditions disproportionately affect migrant and seasonal farmworkers and, with this study, we now know that these injuries are even more widespread than previously reported.

Lack of reporting and undercounting of injuries and illnesses have serious consequences for farmworkers, many of whom do not receive information on how to prevent, avoid, and care for injuries or how to report violations of their labor rights. Agriculture, as an industry, is dangerous. The most affected individuals belong to a workforce that is less able to advocate for its basic rights. This information is not new, but as we are better able to measure how dangerous agricultural occupations are, we can use this data to implement safety measures and better support the people who experience the risks associated with work in agriculture.

Accurate injury and illness reporting will justify stronger policy to protect this valuable workforce, including increasing educational programs to inform farmworkers of the risks to their health, help them prevent injuries, and to exercise the basic rights and protections afforded to all workers in the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform will also support farmworkers and decrease agricultural injury by increasing access to information and removing barriers to health care.

by Chelly Richards
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Friday, 11 April 2014

For the first time in decades, the current generation isn’t as healthy as the one that came before.” The theme for day five of National Public Health Week is “Be the Healthiest Nation in One Generation” and is dedicated to turning around the declining trend in health faced by Americans today. To address this trend, it’s important that we understand the barriers to good health faced by all people in the United States. At Farmworker Justice, we spend a lot of time contemplating migration as a social determinant of health. Specifically, we discuss the roadblocks that affect good health and quality of life and we think about ways to lift those roadblocks, either through advocating for policy change or through health promotion and education projects.

In terms of farmworkers, migration from their home to the U.S. has a lot to do with their health. Just a few factors related to migration that affect farmworkers include poverty, language, discrimination, and national policies.

Most farmworkers live at or below the poverty line. Health outcomes of people who live near the poverty line are worse than for those who enjoy higher incomes.
Eighty-one percent of farmworkers speak Spanish but immediately after arriving in the U.S. they need to navigate everything from grocery stores, public schools, housing, and health clinics almost entirely in English.
• Discrimination, both overt acts of discrimination and microagressions (every day, more subtle forms of discrimination), is associated with increased anxiety, anger, depression, and stress levels.
• Policy can be discriminatory when it is does not provide protections to workers equitably across professions. For example, many states do not require agricultural employers to provide workers’ compensation insurance coverage for farmworkers, even though agriculture is ranked among the most dangerous occupations by the U.S. Department of Labor.
• Policies that don’t seem to be about health, like immigration policy, can actually have a great impact on the health and wellbeing of our community members. For example, children who hear about deportations may constantly fear the separation of their families and people who cannot obtain driver’s licenses may avoid driving to a clinic.

Not only do poverty, language barriers, discrimination, and policy serve as enormous sources of stress, but they also stand in the way of accessing and receiving appropriate medical and mental health services. In addition, sixty-four percent of farmworkers are uninsured, so even when they do seek care, paying for it presents another barrier.

To reverse the decline in the nation’s health outcomes, it is important to address the barriers, social inequalities, and injustices that contribute to the decline. We must also recognize that the health of each individual is affected by the overall health of our communities so working toward better health outcomes for the entire community will create better health for each individual.

by Chelly Richards
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Thursday, 10 April 2014

The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne illnesses. We’ve all seen the frightening consequences from fruits and vegetables contaminated with salmonella or listeria. Eating safe, healthy food, today's theme of National Public Health Week, is a basic building block of public health. While most conversations about this topic revolve around responding to outbreaks or creating more rigorous standards and surveillance by government agencies, few consider the important role of farmworkers in preventing foodborne illnesses.

Food safety advocates have long recognized that the working conditions and training of farmworkers can significantly affect food safety: overworked and underpaid farmworkers in the field are typically not encouraged to look out for safety concerns. If employers don't provide sanitary facilities, or fail to provide the necessary training or economic incentives to stop production when unsafe conditions exist, important opportunities to improve food safety are lost. 

Farmworker Justice is a co-founder of a unique collaboration between farmworker, environmental and consumer advocates, retailers, and farmers that aims to promote food safety and improve working conditions in the produce industry. The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) has developed a set of food safety, labor, and pesticide standards and a training program to help farmworkers and farm owners and their managers work together to implement the standards. 

EFI's food safety standards recognize that farmworkers are often the first line of defense against contaminated food. Under the EFI system, workers receive training to recognize food safety risks and are encouraged to report unsafe conditions, improper practices or procedures in the field to their supervisor. It’s a common sense approach to food safety that benefits workers, growers, retailers and consumers: fresh fruits and vegetables grown and harvested in ways that respect workers can help reduce the potential for transmission of foodborne illness.

by Jessica Felix-Romero
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