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Facing the Challenges of Caring for Migrant Farm Workers

Aug 21, 2019 07:00AM ● By Alyssa McGinnis

By Terry Dell

Agriculture is not only the largest industry in the upper Great Plains but is also one of the most hazardous. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 100 agricultural workers suffer a lost-work-time injury every day, over 400 die from work-related injuries, and about 4,000 youth each year are injured due to farm work. Although these numbers are high, they do reflect an overall improvement in injuries and fatalities over the decades.1, 2

One group that has a high proportion of injuries are migrant workers. Migrant farm workers are at a higher risk for injury than non-migrant workers. According to recent research, “They work for less pay, for longer hours, and in worse conditions than do non-migrants…Worldwide, immigrant workers have higher rates of adverse occupational exposures and working conditions, which lead to poor health outcomes, workplace injuries, and occupational fatalities. The proportion of fatal and nonfatal workplace injuries among immigrants has been increasing, reflecting a shift of the most hazardous jobs to the immigrant workforce.” 3

The migrant workers’ increase in health risk compared to non-migrants for environmental and occupational exposures is a result of language barriers, cultural differences, access to health care, etc. 

Some of the main agriculture exposures include working in heat/cold, pesticides and other chemicals, machinery such as augers, engulfment in grain bins, animal handling, driving slow moving vehicles, loose clothing or long hair getting caught in equipment, and fast paced temporary work. 

Migrant workers are also more subject to certain diseases such as tuberculosis and prenatal issues. Risk-taking is increased by employers paying by the product, employee fear of losing work, and not understanding injury exposures. Both youth and immigrant workers may not be properly trained. 

Generally, it is the employer’s responsibility to provide safety training to employees in a way that they can fully understand injury risks and proper safety controls to help keep them safe. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. The problem is made worse when there are language barriers or when the job penalizes workers for taking time off to get medical care.  

Youth injuries on the farm have been a long-standing issue, but we have seen strong improvements over the past couple decades after research started pushing education.  Research suggested that, ideally, safety training should cover doing the job safely, recognizing hazards, taking precautions, using personal protective equipment, what to do if a problem arises, emergency procedures, and how to report an injury. [Angela add footnote 4]  

Injured workers who need medical treatment are likely to return to the same job where they were injured. Medical providers can help encourage safety awareness by ensuring the injured worker understands the safety protocol that would have helped prevent the injury. The worker should be able to explain job tasks, how work is done, controls used, and express any concerns. 

The Centers for Disease Control has identified the need for ensuring the availability of occupational health medical services, including medical monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment as well as the payment for such services, especially for workers’ compensation. Medical providers can also support return-to-work issues following a disabling injury or illness. 

Although agriculture injuries and fatalities have come down over the decades, injury rates remain higher than most industries and are especially high for migrant populations.  Preventative and injury management measures for this population can be challenging and require additional effort.  


Terry is a Loss Control Specialist with RAS. He holds an MA Degree in Human Factors Psychology and is an authorized OSHA trainer. 


References:

  1. Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/iif/ 

  2. Agricultural Safety (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/aginjury/default.html  

  3. Moyce, SC & Schenker, M. (2018) Migrant workers and their occupational health and safety. Annual Review of Public Health, 39, 351-365.  

  4. Basic Principles for Training Teens. (2008). Retrieved from http://www3.marshfieldclinic.org/proxy/mcrf-centers-nfmc-nccrahs-saghaf-2_basicprinciplesfortrainingteens.1.pdf