At this point, it’s pretty clear that soda is bad for your health. But a new study has found that it may be even worse than we thought.
Published yesterday in the American Journal of Public Health, the study found that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages may be associated with cell aging. More specifically, researchers studied the effect that soda has on telomeres, which are the protective units of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes inside human cells. Previously, the length of telomeres within white blood cells has been tied to shorter lifespans as well as the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. In this study, researchers found that telomeres within white blood cells were shorter among people who drank more soda.
“This is the first demonstration that soda is associated with telomere shortness,” said study lead author Elissa Epel, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco, in a news release. “This finding held regardless of age, race, income and education level. Telomere shortening starts long before disease onset. Further, although we only studied adults here, it is possible that soda consumption is associated with telomere shortening in children as well.”
To conduct the study, researchers studied the association between drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juice and diet soda with telomere length among about 5,300 adults with no history of diabetes or heart disease and who were participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They found that each daily eight-ounce serving of sugar-sweetened sodas was linearly associated with shorter telomeres, which would roughly equal about 1.9 additional years of biological aging. (The average daily sugar-sweetened soda consumption among the study participants was 16.8 ounces.) A daily 20-ounce soda, which is a typical serving size, would translate into about 4.6 additional years of biological aging. Study authors Epel, Cindy Leung, Barbara Laraia, Belinda Needham, David Rehkopf, Nancy Adler, Jue Lin and Elizabeth Blackburn write:
Our hypothesis that consumption of (sugar-sweetened beverages) were related to shorter telomeres was derived from the known effects of (sugar-sweetened beverages) consumption on impaired fasting glucose and insulin resistance. (Sugar-sweetened beverages) have been known to increase oxidative stress and systemic inflammation, which are both processes that can influence telomere attrition. Telomere shortening in response to, and perhaps contributing to, these disease processes was reported, reflecting the overall burden of cardiometabolic disease. Our results suggested that another link between sugar-sweetened soda consumption and metabolic disease might be through shortened telomere length, a biomarker and mechanism of cellular aging.
While sugary sodas did seem to have an effect on telomere length, the study found that drinking 100 percent fruit juice was slightly associated with longer telomeres and no association was observed between telomere length and the consumption of diet sodas or noncarbonated sugar-sweetened beverages. The study noted that soda’s effect on telomere length was comparable to the negative effect of smoking or the positive effect of physical activity on cellular aging.
“Regular consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas might influence disease development, not only by straining the body’s metabolic control of sugars, but also through accelerated cellular aging of tissues,” Epel said.
However, the study authors cautioned that more research is needed, noting that the current study only examined participants at one point in time and that association does not equal causation. Currently, a new study is in the works in which Epel and colleagues will follow a group of study participants over a longer period of time and examine the effects of soda on cellular aging.
To read a full copy of the study, visit the American Journal of Public Health.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Not an “accident”: John Dunnivant, 57, suffers fatal work-related injury at Kia Motors plant in West Point, Georgia
John Dunnivant, 57, suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Tuesday, October 7, while working at a Kia Motors manufacturing plant. The facility is located in West Point, Georgia, off of I-85 near the Alabama-state line. WTVM provides some initial information on the worker’s death:
- Police and fire were called to the plant at 11:10 am local time.
- Dunnivant worked in maintenance and was crushed by a stamping machine.
- Kia management cancelled the remaining workshifts the day of Dunnivant’s death, but production began again the next day.
Ben Wright of the Ledger-Enquirer reports:
- Dunnivant was found in the steel press section of the facility.
- The county coroner reports that Dunnivant “was moving something very heavy and it fell on him.”
- The Korean automaker employs about 3,000 people at the West Point operation. The plant builds the Kia Sorento, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Kia Optima.
- In January 2008 when this Kia Motors plant was being constructed, a worker employed by Superior Rigging & Erecting Co. was struck by a beam and suffered fatal injuries.
The Ledger-Enquirer’s Wright also provides information on Dunnivant’s memorial, including his family’s request:
“Instead of flowers, donations may go to Native American orphanages or schools in his memory.”
Each year, dozens of workers in Georgia are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 70 work-related fatal injuries in Georgia during 2013 (preliminary data, most recent available.) Nationwide, at least 4,405 workers suffered fatal traumatic injuries in 2013.
The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:
- Federal OSHA has 49 inspectors in Georgia to cover more than 214,000 workplaces.
- The average penalty for a serious OSHA violation in Georgia is $2,061.
Federal OSHA has until early April 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole John Dunnivant’s life. It’s likely they’ll determine that Dunnivant’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”
Earlier this month a federal judge upheld citations issued by OSHA to Murray’s Chicken. The company, located 100 miles north of New York City, was cited by OSHA in June 2012 for repeat and serious violations of worker safety regulations. Among others, Murray’s Chicken failed to provide information and train its workers on the hazardous chemicals used in the plant to disinfect the chicken carcasses. OSHA inspectors found that workers in the “kill, evisceration and other poultry processing areas” were routinely exposed to bleach and Perasafe, an antimicrobial agent containing peracetic acid, hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid. Some of the exposed workers were suffering from respiratory system ailments and skin rashes.
For this and other OSHA violations, the agency proposed a $67,600 penalty. Murray’s Chicken, which operates under the name MB Consultants Ltd., contested the citations. The judge didn’t buy Murray’s challenge of OSHA’s findings.
OSHA’s inspection came following the November 2011 death of Jose Navarro, 37. Navarro was a USDA poultry inspector who was assigned to work at Murray Chicken. As reported in April 2013 by the Washington Post’s Kimberly Kindy, Navarro was concerned that chemicals used in the chicken processing were adversely affecting his health and those of the poultry-processing workers. His widow Nicole told Kindy:
“Some themes that were constant were poor ventilation and overuse and mishandling of chemicals which constantly irritated his lungs. Sometimes he would hold his hand over his chest and talk about the chlorine reaching intolerable levels that day.”
After a week in the hospital, Navarro died from a pulmonary hemorrhage.
At Murray’s Chicken, it’s better to be a bird than a worker. Their website shows it’s all about the chickens. The company says its poultry tastes best because its birds have
“the best living conditions,” are raised in a “lush countryside,” with a “leisurely lifestyle,” and plenty of fresh air and sunlight where they can stretch their wings. The company says its chickens are “happy and healthy,” and boasts its processes are “certified humane.”
More than 150 stores in New York City alone carry Murray’s Chicken products. Their poultry may actually taste better because of the way the chickens are raised. I just wish though that more consumers thought about the workers in the plants, than the animals that end up on our plates.
When it comes to substance abuse disorders, public health and the public at-large are hardly on the same page — in fact, they’re not even reading the same book. And that’s a serious problem for sustaining and strengthening efforts to treat addiction and advancing effective public health policy.
“We already know quite a bit about public attitudes toward mental illness and we were interested in learning more — especially in the context of prescription (painkiller) drug abuse — about what the public thinks about issues related to drug addiction,” Colleen Barry, who recently co-authored a study on how the public views drug addiction versus mental illness, told me. “The attitudes of the public can be linked in important ways to broader support for policy action.”
In the study, which was recently published in the journal Psychiatric Services, Barry and colleagues surveyed a representative sample of more than 700 U.S. adults, asking a variety of questions about stigma, social distancing and the acceptability of discrimination. For example, researchers asked questions such as: Would you be willing to have a person with mental illness/drug addiction marry into your family? Would you be willing to have a person with mental illness/drug addiction start working closely with you on a job? Do you favor or oppose requiring insurance companies to offer benefits for the treatment of drug addiction/mental illness that are equivalent to benefits for other medical services? And do you agree that landlords should be able to deny housing to a person with drug addiction/mental illness? Overall, the study found that respondents held significantly more negative views of drug addiction than of mental illness.
Specifically, researchers found that 62 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to work with someone living with a mental illness, but only 22 percent would be willing to work with someone living with addiction. Twenty-five percent said employers should be able to deny employment to people with mental illness; 64 percent said the practice should be allowed regarding drug addiction. Twenty-one percent of respondents opposed offering insurance parity for mental illness, while 43 percent opposed such parity for patients with drug addiction. Fifty-four percent thought landlords should be allowed to refuse housing to people with drug addiction, while 15 percent had a similar view about people with mental illness. Overall, researchers found higher opposition to public policies aimed at helping people struggling with drug addiction when compared to policies in support of people with mental illness. However, respondents did seem to agree in one area: About one in three believe that recovery from either drug addiction or mental illness is impossible.
Study co-authors Barry, Emma McGinty, Bernice Pescosolido and Howard Goldman write:
Less sympathetic views may result at least in part from societal ambivalence about whether to regard substance abuse problems as medical conditions to be treated (similar to other chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease) or personal failings to be overcome. More so than mental illness, addiction is often viewed as a moral shortcoming, and the illegality of drug use reinforces this perspective. It is likely that socially unacceptable behavior accompanying drug addiction (for example, impaired driving and crime) heightens society’s condemnation.
“It was surprising to me how negative the attitudes were,” said Barry, an associate professor in the Departments of Healthy Policy Management and Mental Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “From a policy perspective, we tend to roll mental illness and addiction together…but the way the public thinks about them is very different — more different than I would have expected.”
In efforts to reduce societal stigmas around drug addiction, Barry called for better public information about the treatability of drug addiction and media coverage that more accurately portrays the face of addiction. For example, many people might automatically associate drug addiction with the image of a strung-out drug user living on the streets. But that image misconstrues the growing reality of drug addiction and the idea that drug addiction can happen to anyone and in all walks of life, Barry told me. In fact, such a stereotypical image of addiction could significantly impact public support for policy action at a time when public health practitioners are struggling to contain increases in prescription painkiller and heroin-related deaths and overdose. In addition, such societal attitudes often prevent those who need treatment for addiction from seeking help. Barry noted that currently, less than 10 percent of people with an addiction disorder seek any treatment at all.
“We have a whole new population that needs treatment that is not going to get into treatment in the context of broader social attitudes,” she said, referring to the prescription painkiller abuse epidemic. “So this is a huge issue. …Public support plays a major role in determining which public policies get advanced and which don’t. When we look at the state of the substance abuse treatment system, it’s terribly underfunded and part of that has to do with an underlying lack of support among the public.”
To address the problem, the study calls for “portraying addiction or mental illness as treatable.” In this realm, Barry noted that with advancements in mental health treatments, such as the availability of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat depression and anxiety, people became more comfortable talking publicly about their struggles with mental illness and thus, stigmas around mental health begin to break down. Unfortunately, on the addiction side, we’re behind in both treatment and public acceptance, she noted.
However, the arrow between public opinion and policy change is bidirectional, Barry tells me. In other words, policy can help shift public attitudes as well. She’s talking about the Affordable Care Act, which now requires insurance companies participating in the new health insurance marketplace to cover mental health and substance abuse services as essential benefits. Such a high-profile policy change could go a long way in mainstreaming mental health and addiction treatment, Barry said. Still, public attitudes on drug addiction seem far from the public health perspective that considers addiction a chronic disease.
“We need to transform the stories of addiction in our country,” she said. “We need to be more involved in communicating a more true face of what addiction looks like in the U.S. and how treatment can benefit individuals, and that includes influencing how the news media covers these issues as well as how politicians talk about this issue. We need to change the narrative to one of a chronic disease that can benefit from ongoing, effective treatment.”
To read more about the study, visit the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Expanding the right to know: California workers gain additional access to workplace toxics information as new hazards emerge
“If the California Public Health Department had been able to find out that my company was using a chemical that was killing people, I might never have gotten so sick that I had to have a lung transplant,” Ricardo Corona told a California Judiciary Committee last April, testifying in favor of California Senate Bill (SB) 193 that Governor Jerry Brown signed into law on September 29th. The law, which amends California’s Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service (HESIS), will become the first in the country to require companies that manufacture and distribute toxic chemicals to provide a government agency – in this case the California Department of Public Health – with information about where those chemicals are being shipped. While this sounds more bureaucratic than groundbreaking, Corona’s testimony illustrates vividly how this law could change lives for the better.
As Corona explained to the California Senate committee, he began work in 2006 at a California company that makes food flavorings. His job was to make butter flavorings. As he described during the hearing, in the course of his work, Corona “was exposed to a lot of dust and powder” and breathed the compounds into his lungs as he worked. He did so without having been given respiratory protection or any training about the hazards of this dust. Not long after, Corona started having trouble breathing and a doctor diagnosed asthma. But Corona’s breathing worsened. Eventually, he lost a reported 80% of his breathing capacity and required a lung transplant. Similarly affected and waiting for a lung transplant at the time of the April 2013 California Senate hearing was Corona’s co-worker Irma Ortiz.
The chemical to which Corona and Ortiz had been exposed was diacetyl. It’s used to give microwave popcorn and other snack foods a buttery taste. Diacetyl is also used in baked goods, candy, pet food and other products. Exposure to it is linked with serious respiratory illness including bronchiolitis obliterans – the irreversible obliteration of the small airway passages in the lungs. “My employer did not warn me about the very toxic effects on my lungs of this butter flavoring chemical. The label didn’t have anything on it,” Corona told the California Senate committee. “If my employer and the workers in our company had been told right away that diacetyl was causing dangerous lung problems, I would not be sitting here today with a transplanted lung,” said Corona.
“Workers like me me need SB 193 so we can get the right information from our employers when the California Health Department learns about a serious problem,” explained Corona. The law, he said, “could have kept me from being exposed to toxic chemicals that caused permanent damage. And it could have helped my doctors to figure out that the chemicals at work were killing me. The doctors could have given me information on how to be protected.”
Limitations, caveats and new hazards
As Frances Schreiberg, attorney with the Oakland, California-based law firm Kazan, McClain, Satterley & Greenwood explains, SB 193 – which will take effect on January 1, 2016 – advances the availability of vital workplace chemical hazard information but it does so with limitations. It will require that, upon request and when there there new scientific or medical evidence indicating that a substance may pose serious new or previously unrecognized occupational hazards, companies provide HESIS with the names and addresses of businesses and places of employment in California that have purchased the substances in question. Companies will so be required to tell HESIS the quantity of the chemical purchased, even when it’s part of a mixture. This information will be used to carry out HESIS’ work and won’t be published publicly unless another law requires such disclosure. And the new law won’t apply to chemicals used in consumer products or to other sellers of these chemicals.
With this downstream data in hand, HESIS can ask an employer how it is using a toxic chemical and how the firm is protecting workers, explains Schreiberg. This information will also help HESIS work with employers to find safer substitutes for hazardous chemicals and help HESIS develop and issue hazard alerts –ideally before workers like Ricardo Corona and Irma Ortiz get sick.
“There’s nothing exactly comparable at the federal level,” says Schreiberg.
The law is limited to new scientific and medical information about a chemical’s health effects, which could include hazards not detailed on material safety data sheets (MSDS) in use when the law becomes effective. Take the case of 1-bromopropane – a solvent used as an industrial cleaner for electronics, metals, optics, with adhesives used in manufacturing foam cushions, in aircraft maintenance, asphalt and synthetic fiber production as well as in dry cleaning, among other applications. The material safety data sheets (MSDSs) currently available online from Science Lab and SigmaAldrich, for example, contain no information indicating that 1-bromopropane might be carcinogenic to humans. The National Toxicology Program’s just released 13th Report on Carcinogens, however,describes 1-bromopropane as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals.”
The 13th Report on Carcinogens (RoC) also lists o-toluidine – used primarily to make rubber chemicals, herbicides, dyes, pigments and some medical products – as a “known” human carcinogen. Current MSDSs list it as a “possible” carcinogen. Similarly, the 13th RoC newly lists cumene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” while existing MSDSs for cumune include no indication of such carcinogenicity. While cumene is a naturally-occurring component of petroleum, tobacco smoke and coal tar, it is also used in manufacturing acetone (a solvent) and phenol, both of which are widely used in plastics production.
Meanwhile there’s additional new chemical hazard information in the updated ChemSec Substitute It Now or SIN list (produced by the Göteburg, Sweden-based International Chemical Secretariat) released on October 8th that added 28 chemicals to the existing list of more than 800. Thirteen of these chemicals have been added because they’ve been identified as persistent, bioaccumulative toxins, five because they’ve been identified as carcinogens, mutagens and/or reproductive toxicants and 10 were added because of their endocrine disrupting properties. Among the SIN list additions are flame retardants, plasticizers, chemicals used as food packaging coatings, waterproofing agents, lubricants, solvents, and in inks, paper and textiles among other products. It’s worth noting that endocrine disruption – interference with hormones that regulate a host of vital body systems, including metabolism and reproduction and also play an important role in maintaining neurological, cardiovascular, developmental and immune system health – is typically absent from toxicological information included on MSDSs.
How effective California’s new law will prove in protecting workers like Richard Corona and Irma Ortiz from chemical hazards remains to be seen. But workers and employers alike will now have a legally enforceable tool that will enable them to ask where chemicals with newly identified health hazards are being used throughout California. While but a drop in the bucket of workers exposed to toxic chemicals worldwide – and still constrained by confidential information provisions – it at least offers a way to share this information and prompt worker protection that might be adopted and expanded elsewhere.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
"Badru’s Story," which documents the work of researchers in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is the first-place winner of the Yale Environment 360 Video Contest. Filmmakers Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele trek along with scientist Badru Mugerwa and his team as they monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Watch the video.
“Yes, you can use my name because it doesn’t matter. They have already done everything they can do to me.”
Those are words from Eliceo, a former dairy farm worker in upstate New York. Earlier this year, Eliceo, 36, decided to speak up and share his story with local advocates who are tirelessly working to improve conditions on New York dairy farms and end persistent reports of workplace safety violations, preventable work-related injuries, wage theft, exploitation and in some cases, worker deaths. His story of dangerous farm conditions, inadequate to nonexistent safety training and an employer apathetic to his medical needs is unfortunately not uncommon. In fact, Carly Fox, an organizer at the Worker Justice Center of New York who connected Eliceo with a workers’ compensation lawyer, tells me it’s not unusual for farmworkers to say that employers are more concerned with the health and safety of their cows than the health and safety of their workers.
“Greek yogurt has increased demand for dairy and the state is excited about it and celebrating its growth, but the invisibility of the Latino workplace is really problematic,” said Fox, who’s part of a larger coalition working to organize dairy farm workers and push policy-makers to intervene on behalf of worker safety. “It’s such a successful industry right now and production is increasing so fast, but we’re not giving credit as to why. These workers work incredible hours, they’re afraid of getting fired and their immigration status is used to keep them in fear. …It’s a very troubled industry that we’re celebrating. This isn’t dignified work. It’s substandard.”
In New York state, dairy production is booming, with much of it driven by consumer demand for Greek yogurt. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, while the number of New York dairy farms during the past few decades has decreased, the amount of milk produced has gone up by the billions of pounds, resulting in an increase in hiring outside labor. On the surface, the situation seems like a bright spot in a struggling economy. But underneath the idyllic stereotype of the family farm, workers are increasingly coming forward to report hazardous working conditions, wage violations and employer neglect. In response, dairy farm workers in partnership with local worker advocates have begun organizing to improve working conditions, strengthen government oversight and shed light on a situation that is hardly idyllic at all.
“The workers themselves are saying we deserve better — they’re saying we’re working in horrible conditions and we deserve dignity,” Fox told me.
As part of their efforts to bring visibility to the problem, Fox and fellow advocates are collecting the stories of New York’s dairy farm workers, a large proportion of whom are immigrants unaware of their labor rights and fearful of retaliation for speaking out or demanding medical care for injuries sustained on the job. While some data report that New York dairy farms employ about 2,000 Hispanic workers, Fox says those numbers are terribly outdated. She and her colleagues estimate it’s much higher — probably between 5,000 and 10,000. One of those workers is Eliceo, 35, who came to the United States in 1996, working on chicken farms and in construction in North Carolina before moving to New York in 2009 and finding work within the state’s booming dairy sector.
In 2012, Eliceo began working at a large dairy farm about an hour outside of Rochester. He had multiple job duties, taking care of the animals, cleaning stalls and milking cows. He worked eight hours a day, six days a week — and he and his fellow workers were constantly working, milking upward of 4,000 cows within an eight-hour shift. In February 2013, having already been at the farm for about five months, a bull that was among a group of milking cows attacked Eliceo as he was herding cows from the barn into the milking parlor. He said his employers never alerted him that he may encounter bulls on the job, though he soon realized the fact for himself, and he never received training on how to protect himself from an attack. The injuries Eliceo sustained during the incident affect him until this day.
“(The bull) charged me and hit me in the right foot and I fell,” he told a worker advocate. “Then he hit me from behind. In that moment, I passed out and when I came to the bull was still attacking me. I screamed for help. There were so many cows and I was thrown to the ground. My co-workers couldn’t see where I was even though I was yelling. After, the same animal attacked me outside. I managed to get up and get myself out of there. I barely escaped because if I hadn’t, he would have killed me.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Eliceo couldn’t lift his arm or walk, there were bruises all over his body from the bull’s multiple hits. Neither his employer nor supervisor offered to take him to receive medical care. The next morning, Eliceo found his own ride to the hospital, though his supervisor had expected him back at work and was upset at having to find someone to fill in. Eliceo eventually saw a specialist, who recommended he rest for a week to let his injuries heal and gave him a note ordering him not to return to work without a doctor’s authorization. Eliceo says he gave the note to his supervisor, who said it was invalid, fired Eliceo and kicked him out of the house where he was living. (Farms often provide worker housing, which has a long history of substandard, unhealthy conditions.)
Fortunately, Eliceo had met Fox prior to being evicted from his house. Fox connected him with La Casa, a local organization that provides transitional housing for migrant farmworkers, where Eliceo stayed for three months and recuperated from his injuries. Still, Eliceo wasn’t able to work for a year and continues to suffer from chronic pain that affects his ability to make a living. He’s currently working with a lawyer to access workers’ compensation.
“We don’t know that there are people who advocate for us,” he said. “We are made blind to the truth, as if our eyes were closed. We think that we don’t have any support or the same rights as everyone else. If I hadn’t met (Fox), I would have gone back to Mexico hurt. The first thing we do is take off running for Mexico. What happened to me was incredible, that I crossed paths with (Fox). Now I know my rights, thanks to (Fox).”
Agriculture is among the most dangerous industries in the nation, with a fatality rate nearly seven times higher than for workers in the overall private sector. In the dairy sector, in particular, hours are typically long and wages are typically low. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, a survey of Hispanic dairy farm workers in New York found that most worked an average of 62 hours a week for an average wage of $7.51 per hour. Nationwide, dairy workers experience a higher occupational injury and illness rate than other workers in the private sector and on New York dairy farms alone, there have been 55 fatalities since 2006. However, OSHA’s ability to enforce safer working conditions is filled with gaps.
Typically, OSHA’s presence on dairy farms is in responding to reports of fatalities, not in preventing them from happening in the first place. For example, a 2013 regional OSHA notice listed four completed fatality inspections since 2007: a worker run over by a feed truck, a worker asphyxiated by methane, a worker crushed by cows and a worker struck by the bucket of a skid steer. This major gap in OSHA oversight is a top priority for the recently launched New York State Dairy Workers Organizing Campaign, which is aimed at improving conditions on New York’s dairy farms and empowering workers to make a difference.
“We want to create a movement of workers who are not afraid to say ‘we need laws, we need protection,’” said Rebecca Fuentes, a lead organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York. “We’re finding more and more in interviews that workers want to band together.”
Last year and in response to the stories advocates were hearing during farmworker education and training outreach, the Workers’ Center of Central New York in partnership with the Worker Justice Center of New York launched the statewide campaign to raise awareness about the injustices dairy farm workers face and to strengthen OSHA oversight. Listening to Fox and Fuentes talk about the conditions and dangers dairy farm workers face on a daily basis, it’s shocking to realize that OSHA has such restricted jurisdiction — currently, dairy farms with 10 or fewer employees are completely exempt from OSHA regulations unless the farm operates a temporary labor camp.
Fox tells me that dairy farm workers face a litany of harmful and stressful working conditions: dangerous animals, hazardous chemicals, old machinery, extreme temperatures and little access to protective equipment and safety training. Workers often work long, irregular hours, sometimes with no break at all. The day I spoke with Fox she had just interviewed a worker who reported working six hours on, six hours off on a continuing basis for 15 months with only one full day away from work. Most of the workers Fox and Fuentes work with are Hispanic and speak little English, making them highly vulnerable to workplace abuses. In addition, dairy farm workers often live in migrant housing, which means their employer is also their landlord.
“This is the stuff we hear all the time,” Fox said. “Not every farm is like that, sometimes you hear really good things. But at the end of the day, it’s an industry that’s basically unregulated.”
As part of their organizing efforts, advocates and workers began meeting with local OSHA officials and pushing for a “Local Emphasis Program,” an enforcement strategy designed and implemented at the regional level to address hazards or industries that pose a particular risk to workers in the office’s jurisdiction. The strategy was a success, with OSHA agreeing to launch random, unannounced inspections on New York dairy farms with more than 10 employees beginning this past July. Unfortunately, the inspection program ended in September, though advocates hope the effort will be renewed. Still, OSHA’s action made a difference. Fox said that since the OSHA announcement, she’s heard from workers who report receiving safety training for the first time.
In addition to the OSHA success, the farmworker campaign also organized an 11-day speaking tour in April that visited churches, community centers and universities across the state. The tour, which made 23 stops, was organized to raise awareness among the public, broaden support for worker rights and cultivate new partnerships. The tour’s featured speaker was Jose Cañas, an immigrant farmworker who has worked on upstate dairy farms for more than three years and who witnessed as well as experienced work-related injury and illness. Fox reports that speaking out in public was an empowering experience for farmworkers — “putting a face to this problem is radical in and of itself,” she said.
“We wanted to educate people that health and safety is a right not only for dairy workers, but for all workers,” Fuentes told me.
One of those workers is “Jorge” (he asked me not to use his real name), 36, who’s been working on a dairy farm in upstate New York for nearly 12 years. He’s a milker, working seven days a week — noon to 6 p.m. four days a week and 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. three days a week. He and his co-workers milk 850 cows in six hours and he doesn’t get a break during his shifts. (Fox, who translated the interview for me, tells me that’s normal.) Seven years ago during one of his shifts, a forklift hit him in the head, splitting his forehead open. When he regained consciousness, he was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, where he received 12 stitches. His employer took him back to the farm, where Jorge lived in farmworker housing, the same day and asked him to start working again just two days later.
For a month, Jorge tells me, his head felt numb — “I couldn’t feel my head.” His employer had said he would take Jorge back to the doctor to have the stitches removed; instead, the employer’s wife removed the stitches and Jorge was never taken for follow-up care. Seven years later, Jorge says he still has problems with his left ear — he doesn’t hear as well — and struggles with chronic headaches.
Jorge tells me he’s never received any workplace safety training, even though he’s exposed to chemicals on the job. In fact, he says when management is handling the chemicals, they’re wearing protective gear — “but for us, they just give us gloves,” he said.
“We are also human,” Jorge tells me. “Just because we’re undocumented doesn’t mean we don’t have rights. We are equal. …We came just to work, we didn’t come to take anyone’s job. We see that Americans don’t want to do the work we’re doing. Please don’t forget about us.”
Moving forward, Fox, Fuentes and their colleagues will continue to help workers organize, lodge formal complaints with OSHA, recover stolen wages and access workers’ compensation. They’re also working to collect 100 interviews from 100 different workers and develop a survey instrument tool they hope to eventually use to grow the worker movement and foster worker leaders.
“Law or no law, we are going to organize and the workers will become a movement.” Fuentes said.
To learn more about the New York State Dairy Workers Organizing Campaign, visit the Workers’ Center of Central New York.
(Special thanks to Carly Fox who connected me with workers and translated interviews.)
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.