Local Grower Holds Health and Safety Event For Ag Workers

Oct 16, 2018

Salvador Lopez has worked at JV Smith Companies, a Yuma produce company, for more than two decades. At age 61, the Somerton resident's job as a rig supervisor can take its toll and recently, at a health screening provided by his employer, Lopez received a quick check up.

"This is very good because we have a chance to check our health, check our blood pressure," Lopez said. "That's great."

"I've been with this company for 23 years," he said. "They've always given us great services. We workers appreciate it."

Agricultural work regularly ranks among the most dangerous jobs in the country. Besides the threat of injury, the work takes its toll on the body. And with the average age of a U.S. farmworker at 58 years old and relatively few young people taking up the profession, keeping current workers healthy is a priority for growers.

Lopez and about half the company's drivers, pickers and other employees received health screenings and information on how to self-check for health issues from health workers as the winter vegetable season picks up.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks agriculture as one of the most dangerous industries in the nation. Workers are exposed to the elements, dust, pesticides and equipment injury, as well as the everyday aches, pains and strains of manual labor.

As a labor group, farmworkers receive few benefits. The need to go where the work is, low pay and possible language and cultural barriers may hinder access to social services or affordable primary health care.

Even employer-based health meetings like the one at JV Smith are rare.

Health workers from Campesinos Sin Fronteras, a Somerton-based farmworker health services agency, say JV Smith might be the only ag company in the region to offer these services to its employees.

Rosa Bustillos is a safety and benefits official at JV. She says it's a smart business practice for a company to care for its employees' well-being.

"This is to let them know we care about their health," Bustillos said. "It's important to work in a safe environment. We always say 'safety first'."

Beyond worker health, the event also offered an opportunity for workers to get updates on work safety practices and the protocols in an emergency.

An e-coli outbreak traced to romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma area earlier this year has growers on alert. The JV Smith event included how to report one's health to doctors over the phone as well as small group brainstorming on how to handle specific emergency situations on the job, which can be costly.

A 2015 Ohio State University study of food-borne illness estimated the annual cost to cover medical treatment, loss of productivity and victim payout at $55.5 billion every year.

Andres Elizarraras, 25, who works in tillage and pesticide application for JV Smith, said he is glad to be included in the food safety conversation.

"I think it's important every year to get a refresher on food safety," Elizarraras said. "We know that matters because of the recent e-coli outbreak. It's important for everyone that works in ag to understand the policies."

JV Smith worked with other agencies to coordinate this year's health and safety event, including Campesinos and Western Growers Insurance Services.