School of Public Health and Community Medicine - University of Washington - Autumn 2006
Helping the Hidden Workforce
Safe Work for Day Laborers
Farmworker Housing
History: Labor Camps
Life Experience Turned into Research
Surprising Findings from a Well-Study Group
Conference Presentations
Continuing Education & Events
People & Places
Diesel Bus Study
COHE Evaluation
The Fine Print


One of the challenges of identifying and overcoming workplace hazards is that many workers—especially farmworkers and day laborers—escape surveillance. Our department is working with these groups and also—for the first time—with undergraduate students from underrepresented populations. There is also value in continuing to work with well-studied groups. We made some surprising findings among Chinese textile workers who are part of one of the largest occupational epidemiology cohort studies ever conducted. This issue of Environmental Health News explores these stories and other activities of our faculty, staff, and students.

Safe Work for Day Laborers

You see them on a street corner in Belltown or the parking lot at a hardware store. Contingent workers—mostly young men—hire on for a day’s work. But where do they go once they hop in that truck?

According to Professor Noah Seixas, most day laborers work in construction, landscaping, moving, and cleaning jobs—all high-hazard occupations.

Day laborers talk with a prospectove employer
Day laborers talk with a prospective employer.
Photo by Mark Gaggia

Because day laborers are largely from politically disenfranchised groups such as immigrants (both documented and undocumented), racial minorities, and the poor, they often slip through the safety net of workplace regulation and may be less likely to act against an employer who places them at high risk for injury and illness.

Seixas recently received a $10,000 grant from the UW’s Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies to continue research on this hidden population’s occupational risks.

Earlier this year, Seixas’ team—which includes Senior Lecturer Janice Camp and graduate students Joyce Tseng and Hillary Blecker—conducted a survey among 180 day laborers at two worker centers and an informal pick-up location. Most of the workers reported exposures to heavy lifting and eye hazards. More than half feared serious bodily injury, and a surprising number had refused dangerous work.

The survey picked up 34 injuries that would be recordable by OSHA’s standard, leading to a recordable injury rate of about 30 per 100 if they were full-time workers. Although this statistic is subject to a possible reporting bias, it is five-fold higher than construction injuries nationwide, Seixas said. Even if the survey data isn’t fully comparable to federal or state statistics, he said, “any way you look at it, these people have a very high injury rate.”

Based on the survey data, Seixas hopes to develop educational materials and training sessions for day laborers. His group is using participatory action research methods to develop working relations between the laborer communities and the university. His team plans to follow up with a series of focus groups that should help them understand the political, cultural, and economic context of these communities.

Because of their legal, economic, and political disenfranchisement, immigrant workers, especially day laborers, have limited access to the legal and social protections afforded other workers in the United States, Seixas said.

Part of the participatory focus is to train a cadre of leaders from the day labor community, who can help their fellow workers stay safe on the job. Seixas wants to help these workers network by forming a consortium with other academic centers that are working with immigrant and day labor populations to address health and safety issues at a national level.

For further reading

Fine J. Worker centers: Organizing communities at the edge of the dream. Economic Policy Institute, Sept. 2005.

Valenzuela A, Theodore N, Melendez E, Gonzalez AL. On the corner; Day labor in the United States. UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. Jan. 2006.

Yasui, LM. Employment and labor protections for day laborers. National Employment Law Project, New York, 2002.

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It’s one of the newer apartment complexes in East Wenatchee, with neatly trimmed lawns, a children’s playground, and air conditioners humming.

Reporter Chris Lehman (right) of Northwest Public Radio interviews Alicia McRae, housing authority director (left), and Marty Stierlen, assistant director
Reporter Chris Lehman (right) of Northwest Public Radio interviews Alicia McRae, housing authority director (left), and Marty Stierlen, assistant director.
Photo by Kathy Hall

Heritage Glen apartments are on the cutting edge of agricultural housing. The 35-unit complex was built in 2002 for both year-round agricultural workers and their families, and for migrant workers. The way the units were designed, the neighborhood doesn’t realize the apartment complex is farmworker housing, said Alicia McRae, executive director of the Housing Authority of Chelan County and the City of Wenatchee.

Demand has exceeded supply, she said. Eighty-five people were turned away in July, and another 128 beds of seasonal housing are under construction.

The housing complexes were part of a tour for ten journalists who attended an October workshop, “Children and agriculture: Telling the story,” cosponsored by our Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health (PNASH) Center, the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wisconsin, and the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

Donald Gargas, a pediatrician with the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, described the old style of farmworker housing as a “feast for adjectives” for journalists, with unlicensed sewage systems, no smoke alarms, bad wells, and a risk of children stumbling into unfenced drainage ditches. “We just couldn’t keep asthmatic kids out of the hospital,” he said.

Another panelist, Leo Garcia, assistant professor of horticulture at Wenatchee Valley College, described himself as a former migrant farmworker who saw a variety of houses. “They weren’t the Ritz, but they weren’t the pits either,” he said. “Most growers did the best they could.”

Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League and the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust said, “Washington is doing more for farmworker housing than most states.” The logistics are difficult, he said, as 1500 people might descend on the Wenatchee valley for 20 days during the cherry harvest. The Farmworkers Housing trust, which he described as a “supercoalition” of labor, industry, and housing groups, is seeking to address the problem.

During the two-day workshop, the journalists also learned about children’s risks from heavy equipment and pesticides, child labor laws, and the financial difficulties facing family farms. The Washington and Oregon journalists came from trade publications, radio stations, newspapers, and a television station.

The workshop is the third in a series held nationwide to help journalists understand the health and safety of children on the farm, said Barbara Lee, director of the National Farm Medicine Center and organizer of the event. “Childhood agricultural injury prevention strategies need to be widely communicated,” she said. “The workshop developed a Northwest cadre of journalists who understand the problem.”

Professor Richard Fenske, director of the PNASH center, said one goal is to give journalists a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of a scientific study that may need to be simplified into a headline or a 30-second newscast. This is particularly important, he said, on “hot button” stories such as children’s pesticide exposures.

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In past decades and centuries, migrant farm laborers and contingent workers often stayed in camps that lacked proper shower and toilet facilities.

The hazards of such living conditions have been known since at least the 16th century. Daniel Sennert (1572–1637), a German medical professor at the University of Wittenberg, described an outbreak of typhus during the Austro- Hungarian expedition of Emperor Maximillian II.

He coined the word “camp fever,” and attributed it to unwholesome food and impure water, with contributory causes such as lack of sleep, excessive toil, rain, heat, cold, sudden alarms, and “a thousand other hardships that can be known only to those who have experienced them.”

For further reading

Ramazzini, B. Diseases of Workers: De Morbis Artificum. New York Academy of Medicine, History of Medicine Series, No. 23. Hafner Publishing Co., New York, 1964.

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