February 5, 2019

Washington is the third largest exporter of food and agricultural goods in the country, supplying food products from fruits and vegetables to wheat and seafood. The work is often difficult and dangerous, and agricultural workers face an array of associated health and safety risks. 

Last year, the School of Social Work, along with the UW schools of public health and medicine, launched a study to identify and address health disparities related to the environmental, occupational, socioeconomic and biological stressors faced by rural underserved agricultural workers in Skagit and Whatcom counties. The project is funded by a $50,000 grant from the UW Population Health Initiative, which supports cross-disciplinary research.

“People often think that migrant workers are the same regardless of where they live,” said School of Social Work Professor Gino Aisenberg, founding director of the Latino Center for Health, the first research center in Washington state to focus exclusively on advancing Latino health. “But workers in Skagit and Whatcom counties, where this project is based, are different from those who live in the Yakima Valley. They are more migratory in nature, and many come from areas of Mexico or Central America where they speak the indigenous languages of Trique, Mixtec and Coracholan. Spanish is not their first language.”

These linguistic barriers, coupled with the migratory nature of the work, increases the research challenges that the UW team face. To better serve this community, the project team partnered with Community to Community Development (C2C), a woman-led grassroots organization in Bellingham, Wash., which focuses on immigrant rights and food sovereignty. 

“This local organization had already established strong ties with the farm workers in this region and were providing leadership,” said Aisenberg. “They invited us to help them develop a promotora, or lay health worker, training program.  We recognized that they could help us reach this community, and we in turn could provide them with health, environmental and social data to support their efforts.”

The community-research team created a survey to be administered to the farmworkers. The questions were developed to identify, and then prioritize, agricultural, environmental, and occupational health and safety concerns, zeroing in on such aspects as housing conditions, pesticide use in the fields, availability of safety gear, heat-related illness, work-related injuries, and worker rights and social justice. 

Twelve promotoras from C2C were trained to administer the survey, reaching 349 farmworkers in the field this past summer. Surveys were conducted in English, Spanish and the indigenous languages. 

In January, the UW team presented its findings in a community forum attended by some of the workers and community leaders. Of the top 10 environmental concerns, 60 percent of respondents identified pesticides; 54 percent identified pests such as rodents; 39 percent were concerned about water quality at work, and 35 percent, water quality at home. Other findings showed that, although 18 percent of respondents reported a work-related injury, only 46 percent received workers’ compensation information in their preferred language and 25 percent of those injured did not see a doctor. These and other preliminary data from the pilot project will be used for multiple purposes, including stakeholder advocacy efforts. 

Besides the survey results, the survey outreach received positive feedback from the participants. “We are finally important,” one farmworker remarked during the community forum. “We are no longer invisible.”

The Latino Center for Health, a collaborative effort of the UW School of Public Health and the School of Social Work, is supported with $500,000 in state funds as part of the state’s biennium budget. The Center recently received an additional $135,000 grant from the Washington Department of Labor & Industries to collect data related to healthcare access for Latino workers in Central Washington, including individuals working in hospitality, construction and agriculture.