Population Health

July 28, 2021

PestiSeguro™ paves the way for improving the health and safety of agricultural workers

Image of an agriculture worker in the fieldAccording to data from the Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program from the Washington State Department of Health, of the 630 cases of pesticide-related illness reported in 2010-2017, 90% of cases involved farmworkers whose preferred language was Spanish.

Although most agricultural workers in Washington State are Spanish speakers, required pesticide safety information is primarily available in English. This language barrier poses a potential health and safety risk for workers.

Recognizing the severity of this issue, Kit Galvin, University of Washington research scientist, along with her colleagues at the UW Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (PNASH) and the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, have developed two bilingual mobile device applications to help mitigate these risks.

Galvin’s background in industrial hygiene equips her with the skills to anticipate, recognize, evaluate and control workplace health hazards. Her work centers on addressing the health issues for worker populations.

“I’ve always had an interest in language because it affects people’s access to the information they need,” Galvin said. “The research we have been doing at PNASH involves looking at agricultural worker and family exposures to pesticides and ways to minimize these exposures.”

Pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which includes ensuring that all relevant conditions, directions, and safety precautions are described in labeling. Instructions on the pesticide labels are legally enforceable.

“Every commercial pesticide product is required to have labeling in English,” Galvin said. “That makes it very hard for people who are non-English speakers, especially because most of these labels feature technical terms that are hard to understand.”

As a result, pesticide label translations are a delicate balance between accounting for linguistic variations between English and Spanish while ensuring the language is technically correct.

Working alongside Galvin on the translation side of the application is Pablo Palmández, a communications workplace specialist with the PNASH Center. Palmández has a background and education in agriculture. He also works with the community and is fluent in Spanish and English.

“Pablo and I started out on this project together, back when it was first brought up in 2006,” Galvin said. “He really understands the language and agricultural communities. He is responsible for leading translations and does a lot of research, along with others on our team.”

This project has been funded in part by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, Washington State Department of Agriculture, and PNASH. The team collaborates with Washington State University and stakeholders in the Washington State agricultural community to develop a nuanced solution to this problem.

The researchers have been meticulous in incorporating stakeholder input throughout the application design process.

For example, the researchers designed the applications to be self-contained and do not require cellphone connectivity. This offline feature helps ensure that translations are widely accessible and available, regardless of phone signal.

“We have tested the application and got good feedback and input on those design elements,” Galvin said.

The researchers’ efforts have yielded two bilingual applications for the agricultural community: ¡Etiquetas de pesticidas, ahora!™/(Pesticide Labels, Now!™ and PestiSeguro™/PestiSafe™.

The Pesticide Labels, Now!™ application is currently available for free, while the PestiSeguro™ application continues to be developed as a premium product.

“PestiSeguro™ will be a service from the University of Washington,” Galvin said. “The translations are the service, and the app is for access to the English and the Spanish translations. The service is an ongoing, constantly changing database of information that must be kept up to date.”

Since the inception of the PestiSeguro™ application, Galvin and her team have also explored its commercial potential. To support its commercialization, the project was supported by a CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund award, which was partially funded by the Population Health Initiative.

“The Population Health Initiative has been a longtime supporter of this project,” Galvin said. “This funding has really helped us do more translations and explore mechanisms to support the translations and data-entry work for the service.”

Subsequently, PestiSeguro™ was one of four projects featured in the summer 2020 Social Entrepreneurship Research Program, which is facilitated through a collaboration between the Population Health Initiative, the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance and CoMotion.

“Our plan is to provide this service, PestiSeguro™, and for it to become self-sustaining,” Galvin said. “We will be charging for the service, which makes a real difference in maintaining it. Labels change and information change and we want to keep it up to date and continue to expand.”

Francis Abugbilla, Ph.D. candidate at the Jackson School and 2020 Social Entrepreneurship Fellow, was assigned to help design a sustainable business plan for the growth of PestiSeguro™.

“We were very privileged to have Francis Abugbilla join our project team last summer,” Galvin said. “He was a pleasure to work with and brought us a fresh perspective. [His] market analysis and recommendations continue to be excellent references for the team.”

Among Abugbilla’s work in the fellowship program, Galvin notes that Abugbilla explored expanding the service beyond Washington State, striving towards the team’s long-term goal of expanding its services to a national market.

“He also looked at our backend infrastructure and provided recommendations for future growth, including an alternative app development platform that is faster and can accommodate larger datasets,” Galvin said. “He provided practical information such as the cost for future cloud storage. His work will continue to be a valuable resource for our project as we grow and move towards reaching our social entrepreneurship goals.”

As the PestiSeguro™ service continues to be developed, Galvin notes the exciting future for this work and its potential to improve population health in the Washington State agricultural community and beyond.

“It’s more than a workplace—this work impacts people’s lives and communities, [affecting] both occupational and environmental health,” Galvin said.