Fatigue, health issues on the rise in agricultural industry

Over the past few decades, the U.S. dairy industry has seen a reduction in the number of dairy farms. However, the farms that remain have increased their milking herd sizes, leading to an increased number of workers needed to perform a variety of farm tasks.

These workers often work eight- to 12-hour shifts, six days a week. Larger numbers of workers on farms combined with challenging work environments can raise the risk of injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

David I. Douphrate, PhD, MPT, MBA, CPE, CSP, who joined the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health in August as an associate professor, was recently awarded funding for two distinct research projects addressing worker health and fatigue among dairy farm workers.

“Dairy workers are at higher risk for injuries as compared to workers in other industrial sectors,” Douphrate said. “Right now, Texas is probably the third or fourth largest dairy producing state in the nation. These farms are trending to large-herd operations and that is leading to larger workforces.”

The multi-million-dollar projects are being funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) through two NIOSH-funded Centers for Agricultural Health: the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury, Prevention, and Education (SW Ag Center) at the University of Texas at Tyler Health Science Center and the High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (HICAHS) at Colorado State University. Douphrate serves as the deputy director at the SW Ag Center and as associate director of HICAHS.

“These two projects are focused on two separate sectors, two different issues,” Douphrate said. “The first one is addressing what we call dairy total worker health, and we are looking at the worker and how the workplace may influence their overall health. The other project is addressing dairy worker fatigue, primarily in the milking parlor, because we know it is an issue, we just don’t know how much of an issue it is. We are investigating how fatigue manifests itself among dairy parlor workers. Additionally, we will assess how fatigue affects worker job performance.”

With the increase in herd sizes, and the increasing demand for dairy products, fatigue has become a major issue among dairy workers, particularly those in the milking parlors on dairy farms throughout the United States.

Douphrate and the research team will be partnering with the New Mexico State University Dairy Extension, and they will spend time on dairy farms in New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Idaho to collect data on employees regarding fatigue.

Douphrate and the research team will monitor different aspects such as worker sleep patterns and worker reaction speed. Workers will wear sensors throughout the day and some throughout the night, and they will be monitored for seven straight days.

“We are investigating how fatigue manifests itself among these dairy parlor workers,” Douphrate said. “A fatigued worker can be a compromised worker who may be at increased risk for injury, illness or even death. This study will generate the data needed to develop strategies to mitigate the effects of fatigue to improve worker health, safety and performance.”

The second study will focus on different health issues that may be prevalent among dairy workers such as chronic kidney disease or diabetes. According to Douphrate, there has been an increase in chronic kidney disease among agricultural workers in Central America, and an increasing number of immigrant workers from Central America are working on U.S. dairy farms. According to Douphrate’s prior research findings, agricultural workers from Central America make up 30 to 40 percent of the workforce on western U.S. dairy farms.

The research project will be two-pronged. Investigators will survey workers regarding their health and issues they may be having. Additionally, the research team will partner with the Migrant Clinicians Network and will perform health risk assessments and work with individuals to find ways to help them.

“Dairy farm owners have expressed the need to address worker health and the health needs of their workers,” Douphrate said. “We are trying to start the process of identifying novel and innovative ways of delivering those services on the farms. This will help direct our education efforts and other interventions. It could be education, or it could be actual health care services.

Our research is focused on identifying worker health and safety issues on dairy farms, and developing cost-effective strategies to address these issues, while simultaneously improving farm sustainability. Our nation’s security is dependent on a resilient and secure food chain. A healthy agricultural workforce is vital to secure our nation’s food chain. Our research and outreach efforts will make a significant contribution to insuring a healthy agricultural workforce.”

Douphrate’s research is focused on worker health and safety issues in the agricultural, forestry and fishing industrial sector (AgFF). This industrial sector is one of the most hazardous—AgFF workers experience the highest fatal occupational injury rates. Likewise, AgFF workers are at high risk for nonfatal injury/illness, but the rate likely severely underestimates the true injury/illness burden in this sector due to limitations in reporting and methodology of surveying employers. Throughout his research career, Douphrate has received multiple multi-year awards investigating causes of workplace injuries in agriculture, as well as evaluating interventions to prevent these injuries. Most of his research is focused on the dairy industry.

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