Extension farmworkers health and safety education program connects growers, immigrant farm workers and communities

Neither gray skies on a mid-October Sunday afternoon nor the harvest season’s imminent end prevented several dozen immigrant farmworkers and their families from trickling in to North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s al fresco pesticide safety training session near Newton Grove.

Soon, after harvesting the county’s sweet potatoes, many of the field worker families who live in nearby trailer homes and those who arrived in crew leader Francisco Valdéz Jr.’s re-purposed school bus, would pack up and head for Florida, where berries and citrus crops await their hands and backs.

Today’s relatively small audience represents but a fraction of the 150,000 temporary immigrant workers in North Carolina on H-2A visas for temporary and seasonal work. That number positions our state as the country’s top H-2A worker host, according to a 2012 report by the N.C. Council of Churches. The workers – mostly Spanish speakers from Mexico and Central America – are essential to North Carolina’s agriculture and agribusinesses.

But despite the bucolic setting for this early autumn event, a migrant’s life is fraught with dangers, notes Luís Cruz Santiago, farmworkers health and safety educator for Cooperative Extension’s Community and Rural Development program in Wayne County.

Thanks to the first two years of a $125,198 Philip Morris International pilot project grant, Cruz’s efforts help workers avoid some of those dangers, such as pesticide poisoning, heat stroke and green tobacco sickness, a nicotine poisoning contracted through clothing saturated by wet tobacco.

Cruz, who is point man for an Extension team, teaches today with teammate Cíntia Aguilar, Extension community and rural development associate with NC State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Aguilar and Dr. Susan Jakes, Extension associate state community development program leader, are the grant’s co-principal investigators. Other team members include Dr. Tom Melton, associate Extension director and state program leader for agriculture, natural resources and community and rural development; Kevin Johnson, Wayne County Extension director; and Tyler Whaley, Wayne County agriculture agent for field crops.

“The CALS-based ‘Extension Farmworker Health and Safety Model: A Community Effort’ is a new outreach program for NC State in its continuing partnership with Philip Morris International,” says Jakes. “We have been welcomed on farms across Wayne County, thanks in part to the mutually advantageous relationships of trust between Extension agriculture agents like Tyler Whaley and local producers. We really want to use this opportunity to partner with the producers to help get across important safety messages they are concerned about, in addition to what is in the curriculum.”

Why the concern about worker safety?

Cruz cites recent data, also gathered by the N.C. Council of Churches, that indicate that farm workers suffer from the country’s highest toxic chemical injury and skin disorder rates.

In fact, agricultural work is one of the top three most dangerous occupations in the United States. One in four farm workers report having been injured on the job. In North Carolina, 19 percent of U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration-investigated workplace fatalities in 2012 were related to agriculture, forestry or fishing.

Cruz and Aguilar bring a crucial, possibly life-saving message to the workers’ families, as well as helpful dry goods. On a nearby card table lie various little treats for the kids, such as crayons and coloring books that emphasize safety around pesticides – positive reinforcements for correct answers for learning how to avoid dangerous pesticides and their residues.

Another table holds most of the 277 clean, long-sleeved shirts donated this summer by employees of CALS and the Wayne County Extension center, as well as a box of brand-new red shirts, supplied by Carolyn Mitkowski, Biological and Agricultural Engineering multimedia designer, through donors at the Cary Creative Center, where she is a volunteer.

Aguilar warms up the kids by asking in Spanish their names and who brought them today. Ironically, those who most want to protect their children might inadvertently be danger vectors. Youngsters can be exposed to pesticide residues clinging to their parents’ hair, skin, clothes, work boots and lunch pails. The poison can be transferred by a simple, loving hug.

Lack of health insurance also challenges worker families, and 20 percent of eastern N.C. field workers don’t know where to go for the care needed for some of their children. Aguilar connects these families with Extension resources such as food safety and pre-K programs. “The goal,” she says, “is to educate families, especially the kids, as they can become ‘parent educators’ about worker protection standards.”

The lesson Cruz teaches today, however, is from the “José Aprende Sobre los Pesticidas /José Learns About Pesticides” curriculum, for children ages four to 12. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs developed José, with Cruz recently nationally premiering an updated version in North Carolina. AFOP is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA.

AFOP also supplies materials to educate outreach workers about worker protection standards and heat stress prevention. Local trainers such as Cruz then train farmworkers.

Today’s session is labeled a “family event,” but it’s not by any means Extension’s sole foray onto the worker safety field. Using Extension-developed materials, and with the cooperation of 33 producers, Cruz educated 616 workers at 23 on-farm sessions in Wayne and contiguous counties in 2014.

The basic “text” from which Cruz works to teach adults is Extension’s “Pesticide Safety Tool Kit” – designed by CALS’ Dr. Catherine LeProvost, Applied Ecology Department, along with Dr. Greg Cope, Extension department leader and NC State agromedicine coordinator, and Julia Storm, agromedicine information specialist, both of the Applied Ecology Department. The team geared the kit to Spanish-speaking workers without formal educations. Both units – AFOP’s “Jose” and CALS’ Tool Kit – meet standards set by EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Good Agricultural Practices programs.

Cruz, a Fayetteville State University graduate, comes from a migrant farmworker family that settled in Sampson County. In 2013, as a crew leader assistant for blueberry producers in New Jersey and Elizabethtown, he assisted with worker training and development. His farm-life background and in-field experience has stood him in good stead with local producers.

Craig West of the 4,000-acre West Family Farms in northern Wayne County, where Cruz trained the producer’s Mexican H-2A visa-holders last spring, says, “It was good to have somebody who could communicate better with the workers than I could, and somebody who had a little common sense about what goes on out here.” The West family produces tobacco, soy, peanuts, sweet potatoes, wheat and cotton.

“It works well for us,” adds West, a 1989 NC State graduate in agronomy. “We have a certificate saying they have been trained, and each of them gets a card to prove it, so later nobody can say he hasn’t. And I have a document they sign, saying each one of them has been trained.

“I’m glad that Cooperative Extension has the foresight to do something like this,” he says. “It’s been very helpful.”

– Art Latham


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