UC Davis Helps Farm Workers Avoid Heat Illness

Photo: Diane Mitchell, Javier Castro, Alondra Vega 
(COEH Davis’ predoctoral epidemiology student) 
and Jose Gutierrez present their poster.
Diane Mitchell, Javier Castro, Alondra Vega (COEH Davis’ predoctoral epidemiology student) and Jose Gutierrez present their poster.

The heat index hovered between 100 and 110 degrees on the tobacco farm on August 1, 2006, the day Juan Jose Soriano, a 44 year old Hispanic worker, told his supervisor he was not feeling well at around three in the afternoon. Driven home by the farmer, he fell unconscious by 3:45 p.m. on the steps of his house and was pronounced dead less than five minutes later by emergency medics. The father of five had been in the United States 11 days.

From 1992 to 2006, a total of 68 crop workers died from heat stroke, a rate nearly 20 times greater than for all U.S. civilian workers. Though regulations have been implemented in some states to protect workers, a significant number of heat illness injuries and fatalities still occur each year.

Currently, scientists from UC Davis are studying physiological responses to heat and physical work in inland valley field workers. They also seek to understand the social and cultural influences that affect farm workers’ behaviors and how they relate to heat illness. Their goal is ensure agricultural workers have the safest possible working conditions in a region where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees during summer and fall harvest.

The California Heat Illness Prevention Study (CHIPS) is a 5-year project sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health led by principal investigator Dr. Marc Schenker, the director of COEH at UC Davis and the associate vice provost for Outreach and Engagement. He also directs the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS) and the Migration and Health Research Center and co-directs the Center of Expertise on Migration and Health.

Photo: The CHIPS (California Heat Illness Prevention Study)
The CHIPS (California Heat Illness Prevention Study) team with the study weather station in a vineyard in Ceres, California in 2012. Standing: Jose Gutierrez, Javier Castro, Oscar Valenzuela, Anna Jensen, and Becky Gallo. Seated: Harsimran Singh.

In focus groups organized by California Institute for Rural Studies, a partner on the project, farm workers confirm they have had heat illness training, but if it is only once a year they forget most of it, according to study coordinator Diane Mitchell. Many immigrant Mexican workers said they do not trust drinking water provided by their employer and want commercial water in bottles they can open, revealing a lack of trust. Verbal information is better than written, they added. Feedback from these focus groups will help Teresa Andrews from WCAHS improve outreach and education – another main aim of CHIPS.

Epidemiology doctoral student Alondra Vega is testing how different clothing worn in the fields affects comfort, air flow, and body temperature. Some workers, for example, believe layers offer the best protection. Her data collection method will use ingested body sensors to assess core temperature and cooling due to sweat evaporation under variable conditions to recommend how farm workers can dress optimally for the heat.

The links between kidney disease and heat exposure will be examined by researcher Sally Moyce, a doctoral student in the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis. She is basing her work on the known association of heat exposure and kidney disease, and an emerging epidemic of kidney failure among agricultural workers in Central America thought to be related to heat exposure.

Co-investigators of the study include Dr. James Jones, a professor in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and Gail Wadsworth, Executive Director of the California Institute for Rural Studies, COEH faculty Deborah Bennett, associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences and Daniel J. Tancredi, assistant professor of Pediatrics.

Heat Stress Prevention a Priority at LOHP

Photo: Cal/OSHA's Heat Stress Campaign Poster

The Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) will coordinate a media campaign this summer to prevent heat-related illness among California’s outdoor workers. Now in its fifth year, the media campaign will include billboards and other outdoor ads as well as radio. LOHP will arrange media placement and coverage in inland areas of the state.

The campaign began in 2010 when the Department of Industrial Relations contracted with the University of California to develop and implement a multi-level social marketing effort that included media, training of trainers’ programs, and outreach and training to non-English-speaking workers, their employers as well as their families, local organizations, and communities. Cal/OSHA’s comprehensive campaign also included enforcement activities and education and outreach.

View campaign materials and ads at http://www.99calor.org.

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