Fadi Fathallah from UC Davis received a 4-year grant to fund California AgrAbility, a program that improves the lives of people with disabilities by helping them to stay working in agriculture. The program offers bilingual technical assistance, rehabilitation, education, referrals, and advocacy to workers with disabilities along with its partner, AbilityTools.
“Agriculture is one of the most hazardous industries in the United States, with over 20,000 disabling injuries in California each year,“ reports Principal Investigator Fathallah, a professor of Engineering in the UC Davis Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.
California AgrAbility has helped more than 600 small farmers and Latino farmworkers with disabilities with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute on Food and Agriculture. The program offers assistive technology solutions as simple as ergonomic handles for moving potted plants in nurseries, to more complex solutions such as modified steering wheels in farm vehicles, or assistive lifts to help drivers enter their tractors or operate heavy equipment.
One farmer who recently benefited from the program is Anna. When her disease symptoms began to interfere with her work on the farm, she realized it was time to get help. Anna has multiple sclerosis, or MS. People with MS can experience a temporary worsening of their symptoms through physical exertion or hot weather. In Capay Valley, where Anna works, temperatures reach well over 100 degrees in the summer months. Anna approached Esmeralda Mandujano at California AgrAbility, who provided support and guidance on strategies to reduce fatigue so Anna could work more comfortably, despite the challenges of MS.
Through a collaboration between California AgrAbility and the California Department of Rehabilitation, Anna received financial support for two assistive device interventions – a cooling vest and an air conditioning unit – to cool her body temperature in periods of extreme heat. “This [AC] unit will revolutionize my work capacity and my general ability to fully engage in life and community during the hotter months,” noted Anna. “I can barely imagine how summer life will be, since I have spent so many summers incapacitated at my home.”
Fathallah and his colleagues not only connect workers like Anna with the latest health and safety interventions, they also design new ones. For example, to bring nursery propagation workers back from disability due to repetitive strain injury of the hand, wrist, and arm, the University of California Agricultural Ergonomics Research Center developed air powered sheers, funded by a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Now, instead of workers hand-cutting an average of 5,000 stems a day for plant propagation, the “Air Klipper” cuts the plant for them, virtually eliminating the need for repetitively and forcefully gripping manual sheers. By reducing hand and arm fatigue, the new technology can increase worker productivity.
Over the past years, California AgrAbility has targeted its resources toward injured U.S. veterans. Working with a partner organization, the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, they encourage veterans re-entering the workforce to consider farming as a viable career alternative. “A lot of them have a misconception that they have lost their livelihood due to an amputation or injury. We reach out to them and provide resources to help them adapt,” says Fadi.
Older adults, minorities, and the medically underserved are the at-risk populations assisted by California AgrAbility. Due to language or cultural barriers, many of these workers have difficulty locating health providers, filling out medical forms, and understanding directions on medicines. Too often, they lack services to manage chronic health conditions, including rehabilitation and counseling. In addition to reaching out to these workers through workshops, webinars, and community support systems, California AgrAbility networks with affiliated non-profits and government agencies across the state. For more information on California AgrAbility, visit: http://calagrability.ucdavis.edu.
Watch the webinar by California AgrAbility and Ability Tools on the YouTube via Ability Tools Channel.
Workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD) are injured at higher rates as compared to the general population due to the hazardous nature of the work they most commonly perform, such as light manufacturing, recycling, assembly, janitorial tasks, landscaping services, and warehouse work.
While the provision of health and safety training to workers in general is limited, it is even rarer for workers with ID/DD. A needs assessment conducted by LOHP in 2006 found almost no examples of comprehensive health and safety training for this population.
To address this gap, LOHP created the Staying Safe at Work curriculum in 2009. Program Coordinator Robin Dewey is currently collaborating with NIOSH to update the health and safety curriculum customized to workers with ID/DD. Next, she plans to promote it nationally to high school transition programs serving students with disabilities, employment support agencies, community rehabilitation programs, and other places of employment for adults with disabilities.
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