UW News

September 18, 2006

University of Washington awarded $6.8 million to improve workplace health and safety in agriculture

The Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health (PNASH) Center has received a new five-year, $6.8 million award from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to continue its work to prevent occupational disease and injury among agricultural operators, workers, and their families in the Northwest.

Established in 1996, the PNASH Center is one of 10 centers in the nation directed to conduct research, education, and prevention/intervention programs in agricultural industries. NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The theme of the Center is promoting safe and sustainable agricultural workplaces and communities.

“We hope to highlight the need for improved worker health and safety within sustainable agriculture,” said Dr. Richard Fenske, director of the Center and professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine. “In our view, the need for safe and sustainable agricultural workplaces extends beyond the boundaries of agricultural production, and into the rural communities that are the foundation of the agricultural economy.”

PNASH Center activities are aimed at preventing injuries and illnesses through promotion of health and safety in Northwest agriculture. Researchers identify hazards and then implement and evaluate practical solutions to reduce workplace injury and illness.

UW researchers from multiple disciplines will collaborate with scientists from the Oregon Health and Sciences University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the past five years PNASH researchers have explored health concerns such as chemical exposures, hearing loss, musculoskeletal stress, skin disease, and traumatic injury. In addition to the general agricultural population, special groups served include farm children and teens, Hispanic workers, and older workers.

“We have embraced the model of research-to-practice and collaborate with stakeholders to ensure that our work is relevant, and that health and safety solutions are effectively placed in the hands of agricultural workers and producers, health and safety professionals, health care providers, and public agencies,” Fenske said.

The new CDC/NIOSH award to UW includes seven new projects, and an annual pilot project program that will offer small grants to explore new ideas and respond to emerging needs.

The new project areas include:

Minimizing Occupational Pesticide Exposures

Washington State is currently monitoring agricultural workers who handle certain toxic pesticides. PNASH researchers will use the monitoring system to help identify exposure risk factors, including individual genetic susceptibility. PNASH will partner with workers and producers to identify best practices to prevent pesticide exposure, and evaluate the effectiveness of these practices. The goal is to provide reliable information to growers and workers to eliminate the common causes of pesticide overexposures in Washington State agriculture.

Researchers will also be working to improve the current monitoring program’s laboratory analysis techniques, so that employers and workers can obtain the most accurate results in a timely manner.

Preventing Worker and Family Exposures to Hazards

PNASH researchers will examine the extent to which bacterial pathogens are carried into the home by workers in livestock operations, and will determine if drinking water is contaminated in cases where wells are in proximity to livestock. Researchers in Oregon, supported by the PNASH Center, will determine if pesticide exposures can affect children’s neurological development. A third project will use stories from workers and producers to develop educational messages designed to prevent orchard ladder injuries and heat illness — two critical hazards for the agricultural worker.