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Webinar series spotlights farmworker safety and health
By Tim Alexander
Illinois Correspondent

URBANA, Ill. – Farm labor can be fraught with injury, illness and, occasionally, death. Common risks to agricultural workers include falls, grain entrapments and injuries involving animals. Other risks can include pesticide exposure, musculoskeletal disorders, transportation incidents and lack of adequate housing and health care.
Creating a culture of safety in the workplace was the topic of a farmworker safety and health webinar hosted by the University of Illinois (U of I) April 16. The discussion served to launch farmdoc’s Cultivating Caution Webinar Series, which will continue through Nov. 19 with seven additional installments.
“Hired farmworkers make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but they play an absolutely essential role in U.S. agriculture. Agricultural workers support the estimated $1.2 trillion agriculture industry in the United States,” said Josie Rudolphi, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the U of I. Rudolphi’s research focuses on agricultural safety, mental health and injury prevention.
In kicking off the series, Rudolphi focused heavily on transient and migrant labor issues. She noted that although more farmworkers are locally hired than was the case several decades ago, around 15 percent of the ag workforce remains migratory. This segment of farmworkers is perhaps the most vulnerable to workplace injuries and illnesses, but is also vitally important to the workforce-- especially at harvest.
“It is somewhat of a contentious topic to talk about the legal status of hired crop workers. While there is a lot of conversation about who should be working and how they should be coming into the United States, eliminating agricultural workers or switching to less labor-intensive crop systems can and has negatively impacted agricultural regions and has resulted in lost jobs – not only affecting the agricultural workers but also others in the regions,” Rudolphi said, adding that strict immigration laws passed in some states have exacerbated the “severe impact” of farm labor shortages.
“We continue to see states enact some sort of laws that precludes farm labor from coming into the state, and as a result in some cases they have seen detrimental effects to their economies,” she said. “The majority of U.S. farmworkers are foreign-born. Around 60 percent are born in Mexico. About 80 percent identify as Hispanic, and over 60 percent indicate they are most comfortable conversing in Spanish. This is something that becomes very, very important when you are thinking about agricultural safety and health.”
With that in mind, Rudolphi laid out a number of tips for creating a culture of safety for all farm employees, many of which will be further fleshed out over the course of the webinar series. She also described several common barriers to healthcare, especially for migratory farmworkers.
“There are a number of barriers that agricultural workers unfortunately experience in seeking healthcare and participating in the healthcare system. Some of it may be their legal status, as they may have no access to worker’s compensation and health insurance. They may have no access to transportation to access healthcare services. Many H2A workers rely on transportation supplied by their employer, and that employer may not prioritize transportation to clinics for appointments,” Rudolphi said.
“Their transient nature may make it hard for them to establish a health care provider, access health screening and manage chronic health conditions such as diabetes. When health care is provided, we know that in rural areas there may not be Spanish-speaking physicians or others on staff.”
Rudolphi said studies exist that show migrant farmworkers fear being deported regardless of their legal or visa status, and are hesitant about mentioning their health or injury issues to employers for fear of termination and-or deportation.
“The political dialogue and rhetoric around immigration around 2017-2019 really invoked a lot of fear among farmworkers. These sorts of conversations are damaging not only to the physical health and safety of migrant farmworkers, but also to their mental health,” she said.
Several of organizations in Illinois provide resources and services for farmworkers, including the Great Lakes Center for Farmworker Health and Wellbeing (, one of 12 federally funded centers dedicated to improving the safety and health of farmworkers. In addition, health and safety resources for farmworkers are available through the University of Illinois Extension.
Future virtual editions of the U of I’s Cultivating Caution Webinar Series are:
May 21st - How Will Technology Shape the Farm of the Future?
June 18th - Heat Illness
July 16th - Illinois Injury Surveillance Efforts
Aug 20th - Farm Safety for Youth: Keeping the Next Generation Safe
Sep 17th - Addressing Mental Stress & Health in Agriculture
Oct 15th - Resources for Farmers in Crisis
Nov 19th - Future of Ag Safety: How AI Will Transform Agriculture
Free registration for the series, which includes access to rebroadcasts, is available at