Advocacy & Activism, Housing, Research and Studies, Work Hazards, Working Conditions

Farmworker Interviews Reveal Heat Stress Illness

From CIRSInc.org, Vallerye Mosquera, 7 Jan 2012.

With funding from University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, researchers at UC Davis and the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) recently partnered with the Organizacion de Trabajadores Agricolas de California (OTAC) to conduct interviews with farmworkers in the Stockton area. We hoped to learn more about the off-farm environmental factors that could contribute to the risk for heat stress illness among farmworkers. The interview results will assist the research team in identifying household and community factors that may contribute to heat stress illness in farmworker communities.

Over the past summer and fall, a dozen in-depth interviews were conducted with farmworkers who live in the Stockton area, but who often commute to work as far as the Napa Valley. Although their living situations varied, there were four primary residential settings: trailers in rural trailer parks; trailers on company-owned ranches; apartments in an urban setting (downtown Stockton); and rented houses in suburban areas.  Unfortunately, there are also many farmworkers in the region that are unable to find or sustain housing that are forced to live at the margins of the city in ramshackle structures constructed from found materials. We interviewed one such farmworker to gain insight into the unique challenges faced by rural workers in similar precarious living situations.

The interviewees represented the diverse demographics of farmworkers: female/male, documented/undocumented, single/married and migrant/long-term.  Our conversations with the farmworkers illustrated detailed information about the worker’s background (e.g., state of origin in Mexico, legal status, and duration of time spent in the U.S.); typical workday routine (e.g., transportation, type of work, liquid consumption, and post-work obligations); residential environment (e.g., access to clean drinking water, safety issues, and ability to cool-off); and their own experience with overheating or heat stress illness.

The interviews revealed that some of the main factors determining a farmworker’s ability to cool-off at home include: 1) the farmworker’s sense of safety in his/her community; 2) rural vs. urban setting; 3) access to personal or family transportation; and 4) availability of functioning cooling devices. Whether they live in a rural or urban setting seems to be connected to their sense of safety—with workers in rural areas feeling safer than their counterparts in urban areas—and is therefore also related to the potential risk factors associated with safety (i.e., hesitance to seek cooling in outdoor areas). Similarly, those who live in rural or other ex-urban neighborhoods tend to have their own transportation or share transportation with a family member and typically have access to air conditioning and roomier seating during long commutes.

The lack of a sense of safety was a recurring theme for the interviewees who live within the city limits of Stockton. As stated above, the respondents who live in the outskirts, suburbs, or rural settings felt more secure in their neighborhoods. The respondents’ sense of safety correlated with their time spent outdoors: the safer they felt, the more time they spent outdoors. The interviewees in suburban or rural areas were more likely to have shade trees on the land or property they rented, while those in the city had to go to a park or street corner to find shade trees. Even though they had more access to shaded areas, the respondents in rural or suburban areas also indicated that they visited public parks more often than their counterparts in the city.

Having access to personal or family transportation often provides the farmworkers with a more comfortable commute to agricultural sites when compared with those who pay raiteros, or hired farmworker drivers, for transportation. Farmworkers with a personal or family vehicle typically ride with fewer passengers per vehicle and have air conditioning available. Also, the absence of functioning cooling devices inside residences is an essential component to consider in determining risk to heat stress illness. There were several farmworkers who had central air conditioning, but there were others who only had window air conditioning in one or two rooms or poorly functioning fans.

The interviewees had a mixture of central heat and air, window air conditioners, and fans. With the exception of a respondent living in a rented house and the transient farmworker, all the interviewees used at least one or more fans in addition to any other cooling method. There were four respondents who have window air conditioners, but they are not always reliable and are often in only one room of the house. One woman was even forced to remove her window air conditioner because it was located on the second floor of an apartment building and was deemed a safety hazard by the landlord. Another interviewee had air conditioning in her apartment, but it had been broken for at least a month, and the landlord had failed to fix it after repeated complaints. Urban dwellers interviewed typically did not have access to air conditioning and relied on fans or window air units, but shied away from opening windows for ventilation due to the safety concerns previously mentioned.

Another factor that should be considered in assessing farmworker risk to heat stress is workers’ access to health information and services. Overwhelmingly, the farmworkers expressed concern with the availability of onsite training for health risks and protection. The interviewees who received more frequent training were more likely to identify specific ways to protect themselves from symptoms of heat stress illness, such as avoiding both energy drinks and the use of thick cotton pullover sweatshirts. Among workers who received little or no on-site training, there was confusion about what could contribute to heat stress and, in an extreme case, there was the misconception that alcohol could help prevent the onset of heat stress. Social networks were another key source of health information, with friends and relatives sharing experiences about various service providers. Less prevalent for health education and outreach were non-profit and public sector agencies.

The majority of the interviewees recommended that the best way to inform farmworkers about health risks and protection methods was to provide training at work sites on a regular basis. The farmworkers interviewed often work six days a week, which leaves them little time to visit public agencies during office hours or leisure time to participate in community health events. Therefore, the interviewees stated that the work sites themselves were the most appropriate and logical location for outreach and education.

Information from these interviews and other research will contribute to the development of a community assessment tool to determine risk levels for heat stress illness at farmworkers’ residences.

Source and additional photos: CIRSInc.org, “Farmworker Interviews Reveal Heat Stress Illness” by Vallerye Mosquera, 7 Jan 2012.

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