Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Studying occupational health among illegal workers

“Tea Party-ers”, the US anti-tax group, have decided to target immigration reform. Granted that this politically conservative movement appears based on selfishness, abdication of social responsibilities, and utter financial impracticality, they are not alone in being conflicted about the role of illegal immigrants in modern society. (Not to mention the tangle of mixed metaphors: The Boston Tea Party that is their namesake had a lot to do with taxation, little to do with immigration reform.)

The primary role illegal immigrants play in the US economy is performing work that the legal workforce is unwilling to do based on wages or working conditions. In addition to legal and ethical implications, there are health consequences. For example, how do we study and improve occupational health in a population whose very existence is illegal? What type of research team will be able to gain the trust of illegal workers, not to mention employers benefiting from their labor?

Researchers at the Prevention Research Center at the University of South Florida worked with the Farm Workers Association, and the citrus industry to assemble just such a team. Employers were frustrated by the loss of productivity caused by eye injuries among citrus pickers, both by direct contact from branches as well as residual pesticides. Though 90% of such injuries are preventable with protective eyewear, less than 21% of workers wore them. Working directly with pickers, researchers identified problems with available eyewear, including the tendency for them to fog up in the humid Florida weather, and determined the need for purpose-built protective equipment.

Reactive Innovations, a private technology company specializing in lens coatings, provided the technical and production capacity to manufacture the lenses, something that academic researchers, and their funders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lacked. CDC provided grant funding to support the venture.

This was a partnership where everyone won. In sub-groups that were studied, the combination of peer counseling and purpose-designed eyewear took safety-glass wearing compliance from 1% to 30%. Farm workers’ vision was protected, citrus growers decreased costs from injured workers, and Reactive Innovations had a product that they could market throughout the citrus industry, as well as other industries. Academic researchers gained access to an often ignored population, in large part because they were trusted by a workforce that frequently includes a high proportion of illegal immigrants. The use of academic researchers also ensured that the project received peer-reviewed study, something that helps ensure that observed benefits are in fact real and quantified, not to mention providing the private company with great marketing data. Among the learning points from this endeavor was the value of engaging private-sector technical expertise in public-sector health partnerships.

Have you worked with innovative, cross-disciplinary partnerships? What unique strengths and challenges did you encounter?

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