As an educator with the Farmworkers Health and Safety department at North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) Cooperative Extension-Wayne County, Luis Cruz is inspired by his agricultural upbringing.

“I come from a family of migrant workers,” he said as a former crew leader assistant for a blueberry producer. “I definitely know the struggles and challenges that farmers go through.”

Cruz’s understanding of the local farmworkers, most having recently arrived in the United States, gives him an advantage when conducting the Farmworkers Health and Safety Education Program training session throughout Wayne County, North Carolina, an area of primarily tobacco crops. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation in the number of migrant farmworkers and has the most workers under H-2A status.

This program, funded via a grant from Philip Morris, concentrates on sicknesses like Green Tobacco Sickness, a nicotine-based poisoning common with plant handlers, heat stress as well as pesticide safety in accordance with the national Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS).

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“Our goal is to educate and assist farmworkers and their families. That includes education within the community,” Cruz said. “Very often, workers are unaware of the issues because of language barriers or transportation issues, or they just don’t have the knowledge.”

Cruz said part of the NCSU program is going out to the area farms to educate farmworkers. As the top tobacco-producing state in the United States, North Carolina is home to nearly 150,000 farmworkers and their families. A quarter percentage of them have reported job-related injuries during their lifetime.

Also, farmworkers have the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries. In perspective, a worker in the tobacco field could absorb enough nicotine for 36 cigarettes in just one day.

“As part of the program, we want to raise the awareness of something like Green Tobacco Sickness. Many (farmworkers) realized that they had it before when the symptoms are explained to them,” Cruz said. “They just didn’t know at the time. In those cases, we teach how to use proper protection and clothing.”

WPS and the changes ahead

Since its inception in 1992, WPS is a nationwide regulation focused on minimizing the hazards that cause pesticide poisoning and injuries to agricultural workers and crop handlers. The protection covers more than 2 million farmworkers and pesticide handlers across the United States. Under the guideline, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, employers are required to provide protection for workers as well as pesticide safety training and possible mitigation.

In addition to pesticide training, the requirements include such things as having all EPA-approved information accessible to employees, proper care of decontamination areas and supplies, and sufficient care of the handlers. As time goes on, the arrival of new pesticides will bring various revisions and adjustments to the standard. For example this May, EPA had announced its developing new protection standards to address the use of pesticides. Currently, a draft reviewed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the actual contents of the rule will not be released until later this summer.

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Some have applauded the effort, but contend that the process should occur more expeditiously. In an open letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, the San Francisco-based nonprofit environmental law firm Earth Justice asked for a stronger Worker Protection Standard by mid-August. The firm lobbies for various agriculture issues including farmworker safety.

“Taking action to protect farmworkers is both urgent and important. Farmworkers are not adequately protected from on-the-job exposure to harmful chemicals,” the group’s letter stated. “According to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study, the pesticide poisoning incidence rate among U.S. agricultural workers is 39 times higher than the incidence rate found in all other industries combined.”

The organization said that a change in the standard is well overdue and hopes the EPA will make the necessary adjustments to curb the nearly tens of thousands of cases of pesticide poisonings every year.

“There are costs to poising communities and individuals. Farmworkers are not machines,” Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health, via Earth Justice’s website, said. “Douse them with chemicals and they are going to get sick.”

Providing a need

Updating rules and regulations play a part in improving farmworker safety, but it’s limited if the workers are unaware of standards in place. That’s why Cruz sought a hands-on approach with the Farmworkers Health and Safety Education Program in Wayne County.

“The first year was like word of mouth,” he said. “A farmer told another farmer about our program. They saw a difference and it showed that they care for the farmworkers.”

Cruz said that gains made are attributed to implementing a sense of community with the workers. In addition to the training, the university co-op holds a countywide festival that includes a free clinic, a long-sleeve shirt collection, and various educational literature. The initial year turned out to be a success. According to the co-op, more than 600 workers employed by 33 Wayne County farms were trained through the program.

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“It’s kind of amazing. We got different people from different agencies, tobacco, state officials to support us,” Cruz said. “I was very surprised, happy and pleased with our results.”

He noted that it was refreshing to see how eager the farmers were willing to participate in the project bringing a level of trust between them and the cooperative extension. Also, Cruz said by meeting face-to-face with the farmworkers, he effectively engaged in the useful dialog to increase their awareness of the dangers involved in their line of work.

“We are giving them information that they can use that has an impact on their lives,” he said. “They can go home and use that information and do a good job with the Pesticide Safety Tool toolkit.”

So far more than 15 organizations and 30 representatives throughout Wayne County have participated in the program. After achieving its first-year goals of educating farmworkers, the university co-op plans to spend its second year promoting an annual health fair and expanding its training across North Carolina, a state that grows other crops such as pine trees, soy, cotton, and sweet potatoes.

“Because of the program, we received funding to conduct training for other counties,” he said. “We would like to spend these couple of years expanding with more tobacco crop as well as other crop training. We got the blueprint.”