The University of Illinois Chicago will receive $6 million from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to create the newest Center for Agricultural Safety and Health in the U.S. The new center, called the Great Lakes Center for Worker Health and Welfare of Farmers, will be housed in the UIC School of Public Health.
In Illinois, 35,000 to 55,000 farm workers migrate or switch to farming during the summer. They typically live in extreme poverty, with poor housing, limited transportation, food insecurity, lack of health care and preventive services, and long distances to social services.
“These workers are deeply disadvantaged, despite their critical importance to the food supply chain. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I think everyone understood the important role they play,” said Dr. Linda Forst, a professor in the UIC School of Public Health, who led the proposal for the new center and will serve as its director. “Farm workers are a precious resource in the United States, and we should want to protect that resource.”
Forst’s research has focused on the occupational health of low-wage workers and contingent, seasonal or precariously employed workers. She said farm workers who fall into this category are the most disadvantaged workforce in the United States.
Among the country’s most dangerous work sectors, the agricultural industry has the highest fatality rate per 100,000 workers.
“They don’t have paid sick leave, they don’t have access to health care,” said Forst, professor of environmental and health sciences in the UIC School of Public Health. “And they really don’t have a choice whether they work or not because their wages are so low.”
Many farm workers, she noted, are not formally employed, so it is very difficult for public institutions to collect data on them. NIOSH has funded some of Forst’s projects for farmworkers, and the center will include a new collaboration between the UIC School of Public Health and the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which is affiliated with key to the agricultural industry.
The center will begin its research in Illinois with a census of all migrant, seasonal and H2-A farmworkers with visas in the state to obtain a baseline number of the workforce along with a tabulation of farm-related injuries. The center team will then translate the NIOSH Worker Well-Being Questionnaire into Spanish and administer it to the Illinois farm population.
Center researchers are working to secure funding for a third research project that will allow them to conduct blood tests for biomarkers of stress and inflammation in farm workers to see how these relate to health and well-being. Center researchers will also network with NIOSH Agricultural Centers and researchers in other states.
Forst’s collaborators include Elena Grossman, Tessa Bonney, Michael Siciliano, Tim Johnson, Dana Madigan and Lee Friedman from UIC, and Josie Rudolphi, Salah Issa, Jessica Brinkworth and Charee Thompson from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In addition, the University of Illinois Extension, Illinois Community Health Partnership, Legal Aid Chicago and several governmental and non-governmental organizations will participate in the center’s work.