Center updating research on Southeastern agricultural health and safety

Dr. Glenn Morris
Dr. Glenn Morris

Data about the safety and health of agricultural, forestry and fisheries workers in Florida is severely outdated, according to the director of a newly formed agricultural health and safety center, and is a major reason the new Southeastern Coastal Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (SCCAHS) was established.

SCCAHS explores and addresses the occupational safety and health needs of workers in agriculture, fishing, and forestry in Florida and the Southeast’s coastal states. The University of Florida is the lead institution for the center, partnering with the University of South Florida, Florida State University, Florida A&M University, Emory University and the University of the Virgin Islands.

An overarching goal of the center is to develop new data sources which can provide a complete picture of safety and health issues, and better track how research findings, training efforts and new technologies can measurably improve worker safety and health. A 2006 National Academy of Sciences report notes that agriculture, forestry, and fishing are among the most hazardous occupational sectors nationally, with an annual average of 740 fatalities and 130,000 worker disabilities from agriculture alone.

“Much of the data about Florida’s agricultural safety and health is over a decade old, and may not reflect current problems and issues in this region, ” said SCCAHS director J. Glenn Morris, a professor in UF’s College of Medicine and director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. “We felt that it was critical to establish a Center for Agricultural Safety and Health that focused specifically on issues relevant to farming, fishing, and forestry workers in the region; that took into account modern industry practices, and that had representation from multiple institutions and organizations.”

Morris will provide an overview of the center’s research and educational initiatives in a webinar, hosted by UF’S Center for Public Issues Education in Agriculture and Natural Resources, on July 20 (2-3 p.m. EST). For more information and to register for the webinar, visit For information about the center’s programs, visit

A key area of the center’s research will be the health and safety of workers in the Southeast’s commercial and recreational fishing sector. Occupational injuries and fatalities for fishery workers occur at rates much higher than the national averages for all occupational injuries and fatalities, said Andrew Kane, associate professor of environmental and global health in UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions, and lead investigator of the research project focused on Gulf seafood worker safety.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fishery sector is reported to have the highest fatality rate of any civilian occupation, 34 times higher than the rate for all U.S. workers. In the Southeastern U.S., Florida has the highest fatality rate and nationally is third to Alaska and Massachusetts.

Approximately 12 fatal injuries, mainly from drowning, occur in the Gulf of Mexico fishery workforce every year, Kane said. Fishers labor under hazardous conditions and transportation to a medical facility can be difficult if they are injured while on the water.

“Gulf seafood harvesters contribute hugely to our domestic seafood catch, and provide quality shrimp, fish, oyster and crab to our nation’s tables, and for export,” Kane said. “These workers paved the foundation and economic base for many Gulf coastal communities, and represent some of the hardest-working Americans I know. Our collaborative NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety) SCCAHS efforts with community partners and fishers can reduce the rate of occupational fatalities and injuries in this vital American workforce.”

In addition to identifying the health and safety needs of the Southeast’s seafood workers, SCCAHS is conducting research on the extent and types of pesticides and herbicides used on Florida’s commercial farmland, and on whether safety and education materials produce changes in safety behaviors among Latino farmworkers.

Gregory Glass, UF professor of geography and a member of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, will use remote sensing technology to estimate the levels of pesticide and herbicide used in agricultural production in Florida. Glass said it has been more than eight years since pesticides and herbicides used in the state’s commercial agriculture production have been assessed.

“We need a more efficient method that can be helpful to growers, health care deliverers and workers to estimate what the likely exposures to agrichemicals will be under best practices, given that agrichemicals remain a needed strategy to economically produce foods safely in Florida,” Glass said.

Exposure to agrichemicals can be dermal, oral and respiratory and can occur through direct contact during application, contact with agrichemical residue on plants, upon entering a recently treated area, or through drift from a nearby application. Exposure can result in a wide range of acute health effects, including nausea, dizziness, vomiting, headaches, stomach pain, rashes and eye problems.

Joseph Grzywacz, a professor in Florida State University’s College of Human Sciences and the chair of the department of family and child sciences, will lead the research on developing and testing culturally appropriate training materials, with a focus on heat stress and pesticides. He said farmworkers engaged in crop production or support activities have a death rate nearly 20 times greater than workers, in general. Approximately one-quarter of Latino farmworkers in the Southeast have consistent evidence of exposure to organophosphorus pesticides, Grzywacz said; studies have indicated that prolonged exposure to organophosphorus pesticides can increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Absent effective training programs, farmworkers are often left to their own beliefs and experiences in determining what workplace practices are needed to perform their jobs in manners perceived as safe.“Pesticide exposure and heat illness are primary threats to the health of farmworkers, the majority of whom are Latino immigrants. Our research project meets these mandates by developing and testing culturally and contextually relevant health education materials to help workers protect themselves against the threats of pesticide exposure and heat stress,” Grzywacz said. “Activities undertaken through our culturally appropriate pesticide and heat stress education program are required by law in some cases, and advocated by federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) conducts a training program for farm labor supervisors who oversee the state’s 194,000 estimated farmworkers. Because an injury on a harvesting crew can negatively affect productivity of the entire unit, UF/IFAS researchers will assess the role farm labor supervisors play to enhance worker safety, as part of the SCCAHS project.

“Through the UF/IFAS Farm Labor Supervisor Training Program, we will test the hypothesis that the role of a labor supervisor can be expanded to include promotion of safety practices among farmworkers,” said Dr. Fritz Roka, associate professor of agricultural economics at the UF/IFAS Southwest Research and Education Center in Immokalee, Florida. “Engaging labor supervisors in safety and health education is a critical first step in overcoming barriers to injury prevention in the fields.” 

Download the fact sheet.

Download the graphics.

Download the news release.