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Tidbits from Trainings: How To Know You're Well Hydrated Leslie Olivares May 17, 2018

During our heat illness prevention trainings one thing we always emphasize is the importance of drinking water and staying hydrated, especially for outdoor workers. Our body is made up of 70% water, and it uses water for every function: for our brain to work/think properly, to extract the energy from the food we eat, and  to discard what we do not need, etc. This is why staying hydrated is so important for our health and to keep our body functioning properly. Here are our suggestions on how much water you should be drinking and two simple ways to know if you are drinking enough. 

How much water should I drink?

Because everyone’s body has different requirements, there is no golden rule on how much water everyone should drink. There are many factors such as body mass, level of activity, and weather that will affect exactly how much water you need on any given day. Because of this, we start with the following general suggestions:

On days that you are not very active or spending a lot of time indoors start with 8-10 cups of water (8oz each) per day. Make sure to spread these cups of water throughout the day.

On days that you are working outdoors and sweating significantly, we recommend drinking 4 cups of water (8oz each) per hour or 1 cup every 15 minutes. It sounds like a lot, but in order to stay hydrated while working in high temperatures, you need to replace all of the water you are sweating out.

Most people will not need to follow either of the above suggestions exactly. You will likely be somewhere in the middle. Once you decide how much water you think you should be drinking based on your circumstances, you can use the following guidelines to further refine your water intake.

Being thirsty is a good sign, right?

Many people wait until they feel thirsty to drink water, but thirst is a signal your body sends when you are already dehydrated. The goal is to make sure you are drinking enough water throughout the day so that you never actually feel thirsty. If you find that you still feel thirsty sometimes despite drinking water throughout the day, you should increase how often you drink.

Also, don’t drink too much all at once. Your body can only absorb a certain amount at a time! It’s better to drink more often throughout the day than to drink a lot in one sitting. Try sticking to 1 cup each time you drink.

Urine Color – What color should my pee be?

A simple way to gauge your level of hydration is to pay attention to the color of your urine. If your urine is very dark and has a strong odor, you are definitely dehydrated and should increase your water intake.

If your urine is completely clear, you are likely drinking too much. As mentioned earlier, your body can only absorb so much at a time, and once it is fully hydrated, it will just rid itself of the extra water.

You want your urine to be a pale yellow. This means you are drinking just enough to keep your body hydrated and to get rid of all the waste that your body eliminates through urine.

Heat Illness Prevention Training

Our heat illness prevention training was developed based on the findings of the California Heat Illness Prevention Study (CHIPS). If you are interested in having us conduct a training at your workplace, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

 

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New Study Reports Differences in Physical Health of U.S. Farm Workers by Legal Status Emily Felt April 03, 2018

Unauthorized immigrants who work in the U.S. lack access to basic rights and privileges. They face a constant threat of detention and deportation.  They are also subject to discrimination, and they have little power in the workplace. These disadvantages and other disparities can pose problems for their mental and physical health.

Studying farm workers can help us understand the relationship between legal status and health.  In part, this is because agricultural work in the U.S. has the highest concentration of unauthorized immigrants. According to the PEW Research Center, approximately a quarter of farm workers do not have authorization to work legally in the U.S. 

Understanding the relationship between health and legal status among immigrant farm workers

Although we might think that legal vulnerability would lead to poorer physical health, in a new study funded by the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS) we found the opposite. In our study, unauthorized farm workers reported good physical health. Their health was better than that of legal permanent residents (Green Card holders) and naturalized citizens.

To conduct the study, we used data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) from 2000-2016. The NAWS interviews workers employed in crop agriculture on the worksite. The sample of immigrants included naturalized citizens, Green Card holders, temporary visa holders, and people unauthorized to work. We wanted to look at whether there are differences in the prevalence of chronic health conditions and musculoskeletal pain by legal status. Our study included Mexican-born farm workers aged 18-64.

Unauthorized farm workers report fewer chronic conditions than naturalized citizens

The survey asked farm workers if they had ever been told by a doctor or nurse that they have asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease. Unauthorized immigrants were half as likely to report a chronic condition as naturalized citizens, 15% of whom reported a chronic condition.  Green Card holders were about a third as likely. We also looked at other factors that might explain differences in physical health. These factors included health insurance coverage, sex, education, marital status, family income, and time since migration. Even after accounting for these factors, unauthorized farm workers were still less likely to report chronic conditions than authorized farm workers.

Musculoskeletal pain also shows a gradient related to legal status

The survey asked farm workers whether they had pain or discomfort in different parts of their bodies (back, wrist, fingers etc.) in the past 12 months. These indicators of musculoskeletal pain do not require a doctor's diagnosis.  Therefore, they might provide a more accurate picture of health than doctor-diagnosed chronic conditions. However, we also found evidence of a legal status gradient in reports of musculoskeletal pain. Accounting for differences in demographic factors, work conditions, and time since migration, about 1 in 6 unauthorized immigrants and 1 in 5 Green Card holders reported pain. This is fewer than the 1 in 4 naturalized citizens that reported pain.

A small but growing number of studies show better physical health of unauthorized immigrant workers

Our study found that legal status is highly related to physical health among immigrant farm workers from Mexico, but in a way that was contrary to our expectations based on the substantial social disadvantages that unauthorized immigrants face in the United States. Counterintuitively, we found that physical health is worse among those with greater rights and privileges granted through immigrant legal status. This finding is consistent with a small number of studies that also find no differences in physical health related to legal status. It is possible that the challenges of migrating to the U.S. and working as an unauthorized migrant may require good health. This means that unauthorized workers are drawn from a healthier population than the pool of authorized migrants. However, we need more research to confirm the pattern we observed in this study and to understand its implications.

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Stories from the field: WCAHS Attends a Conference for Farmworker Women Leslie Olivares March 20, 2018

Many of us are familiar with the story of Cesar Chavez and how he and other farmworkers organized themselves to fight for farmworker rights. Although much progress has been made, many farmworkers continue to work long hours in unsafe conditions and with low pay. Because of this, community leaders still play an essential role in improving the lives of farmworkers.

The Annual Farmworker Women’s Conference Combines Advocacy with Tradition

Lali Moheno is a community leader who has been working for most of her life to improve the lives of farmworkers, with a focus on farmworker women. She not only watched her mother work in the fields for many years, but she also worked in the fields herself throughout high school and college.

The 16th Annual Farmworker Women’s Conference took place on November 3rd 2017 and focused on improving the well-being of women who work in the fields and their families. Lali Moheno first created the event in 2002 in memory of her mother.

“I started this because my mother was really ill. She was suffering a lot from diabetes, and [had] injuries she got in the field. She had her Achilles’ tendon ruptured in both legs because in the fields, every step you take, you step in soft dirt.” - Lali Moheno (Vida en el Valle, 2013)

A Focus on Farmworker Women’s Health, Safety, Employment, Education, and the Environment

Farmworker women from anywhere are welcome to attend the conference free of charge. The vast majority of farmworkers in California are Spanish speaking. This conference was conducted in Spanish and even provided childcare, an environment perfect for women farmworkers. Various agencies were present to provide  information on access to healthcare, employment, training, labor rights, and educational programs.

“Only farmworkers know what it’s like to have to work in the fields. Everything [in the conference] is based on my own background. It’s because I believe people deserve to have a better life than what we had.” - Lali Moheno (Vida en el Valle, 2013)

Collaboration with Influential Leaders

WCAHS is dedicated to improving the health and safety of farmworkers and their families. Working with Lali Moheno and attending her events has opened important doors for us to reach the community directly and disseminate important agricultural health and safety information as well as inform workers about the free trainings and resources that we offer.

Last year I had the pleasure of attending the Immigration Conference and Farmworker Women’s Conference, both organized by Lali Moheno. I had the opportunity to speak to workers and their families about the importance of heat illness prevention and pesticide safety.

With the support of Lali Moheno, WCAHS was also able to conduct focus groups for our Sexual Harassment Prevention Study, which aims to provide agricultural companies with information that they can use to foster a work environment that reduces the risk of sexual harassment.

Don’t Miss Out on This Year’s Farmworker Women’s Conference!

The Farmworker Women’s Conference typically takes place in November in Visalia, CA. Don’t forget to take a look at our events page every now and then, where we will be posting information about this year’s conference as soon as we learn the details. We hope to see you there!

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Stories from the field: 5th Annual Promotores Conference Takes Place in Yolo, California Leslie Olivares February 22, 2018

For the past four years, representatives from different organizations located in Yolo County have come together to organize an Annual Promotores Conference. This event is always free and conducted in Spanish, and it is open to anyone interested in learning about community issues such as labor rights, child development, health and wellbeing, domestic violence and others based on what participants are interested in. The event is a great resource for community leaders and educators to gain valuable knowledge to bring back to their communities.

The History of Promotores as Advocates for Community Wellbeing

The literal translation of the word “promotores” in English is “promoters” but promotores do much more. The terms promotora (female) or promotor (male) are used in the Latino community to describe a community member who promotes health and wellness through education by disseminating educational material and/or by being an educator themselves. Historically, promotores have been women in the community who volunteer their time, but over the years more men have become involved in this type of work. Promotores are usually prominent members of the community that have taken on a leadership role in improving the overall wellbeing of their community.

Promotora Leadership in Yolo, California

The work of promotores continues to be important in the Latino community, and over the years promotores have increased in number and become organized into networks that share information and resources with the common goal of improving community wellbeing. Here in Yolo, CA we have a network of promotores that has been led by Hermenejildo Varela, a health educator working for Dignity Health in Woodland, CA. He brought together representatives from various organizations and non-profit groups to create the Network of Promotoras and Community Health Workers in Yolo, and collectively they have worked together to organize the Annual Promotores Conference.

Register for This Year’s Promotores Conference by February 23rd

At WCAHS we are happy to be a part of the conference organizing committee for the second year in a row, and we hope to continue to be a part of the Network of Promotoras and Community Health Workers in Yolo for many years to come. The 5th Annual Promotores Conference was organized by representatives from Dignity Health, Vision y Compromiso, Planned Parenthood, CalAgrAbility, CommuniCare Health Centers, Winters Healthcare, Empower Yolo, WCAHS, Community Medical Centers, and Yolo County Children’s Alliance. Don’t forget to register before February 23rd, and we hope to see you there!

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Stories from the Field: WCAHS attends the 22nd Annual Arizona Interagency Farmworkers Coalition Conference Isabel Flores Garcia January 10, 2018

On September 26th - 28th, the WCAHS Outreach Team attended the 22nd Annual Arizona Interagency Farmworkers Coalition (AIFC) Conference held in Yuma, Arizona. WCAHS not only covers California, but also Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii, so it was a great opportunity to learn more about what other states are doing for farmworkers and their families.

Promoting health and positive change at the AIFC Conference in Arizona

The conference opened with keynote speaker Roberto Dansie, PhD, who is a nationally renowned psychologist, motivational speaker, Toltec/Mayan curandero/shaman, author, and cultural wisdom scholar. He shared a combination of personal stories and inspirational philosophy to promote cultural diversity and motivate others through positive change. His uplifting presentation provided many funny moments that the crowd loved.

There was also a presentation on current immigration issues and executive orders in the United States, including a very detailed and helpful overview of the H2A program in Arizona. This temporary agricultural program establishes a means for agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. I had never heard of this program, so it was great to learn about it and hear about the current challenges it faces.

Self-care support at community health centers

The second day of the conference offered information about migrant and community health centers and a new program involving self-care. A recruiter from Arizona State University spoke about the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) offered to children of migrant or seasonal farmworkers that helps them each step of the way towards graduation. A coordinator from the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers also spoke about how we can be effective advocates by raising our voices in support of a cause or mission, spreading the word and taking action to benefit others.

That same evening, AIFC hosted their Annual Scholarship Awards Dinner for 10 young individuals who were this year’s recipients. There were so many positive speakers rooting for these young individuals and reminding them that they too could make a difference in their communities. Many of those speakers not only grew up in Yuma, but also became professionals who now work in the same communities they grew up in. A young group of local mariachi players and dancers brightened up the evening dinner with music and traditional Mexican dances.

Supporting farmworkers and their families in Arizona

Overall, the conference was full of amazing individuals doing their part to help local farmworkers and their families. It was inspiring to see such a tightknit group who really makes every attempt to give back to their communities and put Arizona on the radar. We hope to participate in the conference again and establish stronger partnerships.

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Stories From the Field: Community Health Fair at Knights Landing One Health Center Leslie Olivares November 28, 2017

Knights Landing, CA is a small rural community populated predominantly by Latino farmworkers whose work involves many health and safety risks. A challenge for many workers and their families is that the nearest medical facility is 13 miles away.

While that distance might not seem far, it can be a real struggle for many community members to get there because of work constraints and limited transportation options.

Student run Knights Landing One Health Center

The Knights Landing One Health Center is a UC Davis student-run clinic that provides valuable primary health care services to the Knights Landing community every first and third Sunday of each month.

Health education, with particular emphasis on women, adolescents, and farmworkers, is a priority. Veterinary and some legal services are available as well.

All of these services are free, provided by volunteers, and designed with the cultural and linguistic needs of the community in mind.

WCAHS proud to be part of health education at fair

WCAHS table and start of kids water obstacle course in background.

This is the second year that WCAHS has participated in a community health fair organized by the student volunteers at the One Health Center.

This year, the day was bright and sunny, perfect for the water obstacle course that the students put together for the kids. As the kids played, their parents were able to stop by various information tables and learn about community resources available to them.

During the time I spent at the WCAHS information table talking to people about pesticide safety and heat illness, I also spoke with some of the One Health student volunteers. It was great to hear how passionate they were about their work and serving the community, as are we.

We look forward to continue working with Knights Landing One Health Center and its sister clinic, Clinica Tepati in Sacramento, to better the health of farmworkers and their families.

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Del Bosque Family Farm Passes on Culture of Health and Safety to Employees and Younger Generation Leslie Olivares November 17, 2017
Stories From the Field

During my time here at WCAHS, I have had the opportunity to travel to many parts of California and share what I have learned about agricultural health and safety with farmworkers. Recently, I accompanied Teresa Andrews, WCAHS’ Education and Outreach Specialist, on a tailgate training she conducted at Del Bosque Farms, Inc., in Firebaugh, CA.

A beautiful row of sunflowers at the entrance led us to the front office, where we met Joe Del Bosque and his wife, Maria Del Bosque. Mrs. Del Bosque had attended one of our trainings in the past and was excited to have us visit their farm and speak to their workers about heat illness prevention. Del Bosque Farms is a family owned organic farm that grows melons, almonds, asparagus, and cherries on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Heat illness prevention tailgate training conducted by WCAHS at Del Bosque Farms.

Educating their workers on safety

As part of the safety culture of the farm, we stopped to wash our hands before meeting the crew we were going to train. Once there, we had the opportunity to present to a friendly and outgoing crew. They did not hesitate to participate and answer questions when we quizzed them.

It is always such a rewarding experience to be able to bring information to such a humble group of people regardless of how much they already know. It was evident that although the crew was very informed, they were still grateful for the refresher and some even agreed to participate in a focus group to help us improve our materials and training methods.

Maria and Joe Del Bosque with their oldest grandson, Trajan.

A family business with multiple generations

The Del Bosque family takes a great deal of pride in their work and farm – it is not only a family business, but also a tradition that reinforces their tight family bond.

Their daughter, a UC Davis graduate, has joined the family business and manages many aspects of food safety. Their two grandsons also visit often and spend summers helping out their grandfather and learning how to work the land.

Ms. Del Bosque did not miss the opportunity to tell us about her youngest grandson and how quickly he is learning about farming at the young age of three.

It was evident that her grandson’s interest in agriculture made her very proud, and when asked about what she thought about him potentially running the farm one day she said, "I think he would because Logan is a very hard working kid, and he does everything with a lot of joy. The farm is a favorite place of his. He really enjoys his visits to the farm with grandma."

Promoting good farm practices

I enjoyed seeing the way that the Del Bosque farm operated and how their strong family values were reflected in their business. As a member of a health and safety research center, I could not help but notice how they were able to foster a culture of safety on their farm.

Crew leader teaches Del Bosque grandson Logan how to properly hoe.

When asked how she promotes the importance of health and safety to her workers, Mrs. Del Bosque said, "We have a very intensive food safety program. We train our workers and every day we put into practice our policies on different topics, such as worker safety and accident prevention in the workplace."

Teaching the next generation

I was curious to know how the family passes down such good farm practices to the younger generation. I asked how she talked to her grandkids about health and safety and is able to get them to understand its importance.

"I talk to them like I do my employees about wearing adequate clothing to protect themselves from the heat and from pesticides. As you can see, Logan is dressed the same way we dress for work. We lead by example." - Maria Del Bosque

We greatly enjoyed the opportunity to present to the workers of Del Bosque Farms, and we look forward to continue working with them. Thank you to Joe and Maria Del Bosque for graciously welcoming us onto their farm.

Melons being harvested at the Del Bosque Farms.

 

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Healthy Lungs and Agriculture Emily Walsh November 16, 2017

Agricultural workers face numerous airborne threats every day. Air pollutant emissions, soil fumigants, pesticides, mold, asbestos, and dust are a few of the potential lung health hazards that an agricultural worker can come into contact through work.

Researchers at the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS) have a long history of studying ways to protect workers from airborne contaminants. Projects include studying whether agricultural workers have an increased risk for Valley fever, identifying agricultural practices that present increased risk for respiratory toxicity, and how the new chicken caging laws in California affect poultry worker respiratory health.    

Here, we take a look at how some of these toxins can affect agricultural worker’s health.

Crop duster spraying pesticides.Soil Fumigants, Environmental Dusts, and Pesticides

Pesticides and soil fumigants are commonly used in the agricultural industry. There are many benefits to the uses of pesticides and fumigants, including crop protection, food preservation, and disease control from such hazards as insects, weeds, rodents, fungi or other organisms. A down side is that they can also be hazardous to the human health if not properly controlled.

It is important that pesticide and fumigant applicators know how to safely apply pesticides, use appropriate personal protective equipment, and notify other workers when pesticides have been applied. This is because people can become poisoned or die from pesticide exposure. Some of respiratory symptoms and diseases associated with chronic occupational pesticide exposure, include

  • Asthma
  • Chronic bronchitis or COPD
  • Lung cancer
  • Impaired lung function
  • Cough, wheeze, allergy

One alternative to the use of toxic soil fumigants currently being researched at WCAHS is the use of biosolarization. Biosolarization uses the process of mulching the soil with a tarp to trap solar heat radiation to heat the soil to a temperature that kills pests. Addition of compost to the soil results in increased microbiobial activity that adds additional protection against pests.

Environmental dust pollution is another common in agricultural pollutant, especially in the western US where dry farming methods are used. For example, tilling the soil can produce large dust clouds as can livestock in stockyards or dairies. Dust exposure has been associated with exacerbating asthma, allergies, and respiratory infections.

Mold Some people develop allergies to mold.

One lesser-known environmental factor that can affect the respiratory health of agricultural workers is mold. Mold is a naturally-occurring fungus that is often found in damp and humid conditions indoors or outdoors. Once mold begins to grow, it can reproduce even in harsh conditions.

On farms, mold tends to hide in things such as haystacks, and also in straw and grain. This happens when crops and hay are stored without sufficient drying, causing the heat and moisture to produce mold growth.

For workers, coming into contact with mold can cause numerous health issues. For example, as bales of moldy hay are broken open, a fine dust is released that can cause Farmer’s lung, an allergic reaction. Farmer’s lung is most commonly caused by hay, but any moldy crop can cause it.

Some respiratory symptoms of mold exposure are:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Asthma-like symptoms
  • Respiratory illness in children

With proper ventilation, low indoor humidity levels, and sufficiently drying hay, most mold can be contained to help to keep workers safe on farms.

Asbestos Asbestos was used in many older buildings. Caution is required when demolishing or remodeling them.

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring silicate mineral that was often used in the past as a building material in factories, homes, and farms because it is extremely durable and resistant to high temperatures, including fires.  The U.S. did not start regulating the use of asbestos until the mid-1980’s, so many structures built before this time have a high possibility of containing asbestos.

According to the Congressional Record, roughly speaking, there are still 15 to 35 million structures that contain asbestos in the U.S. Asbestos can be commonly found behind walls, under vinyl tile flooring, in siding and roofing, in certain cement and around pipes.

When asbestos is properly installed and enclosed, it provides little threat to workers or people in the structure. However as those wear down over time, the asbestos can become damaged or disturbed, released into the air, and can be inhaled or ingested. There, it becomes a huge health risk as asbestos fibers can become lodged in the lungs linings and lead to mesothelioma cancer.

Mesothelioma from asbestos

Mesothelioma can commonly take up to 20 to 40 years to fully show the symptoms of the disease and is known for its poor prognosis. Common symptoms displayed in mesothelioma are:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hoarseness
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs
  • Difficulty swallowing

If any workers or individuals think they have been exposed to asbestos while working at a farm or factory, they should immediately get in touch with a doctor, so that they can be monitored to ensure no damage has occurred. In addition, if you see disturbed asbestos or think there is asbestos at the workplace, home, or farm, contact an asbestos inspector right away to ensure the safety of your family and of workers. 

Please help us spread awareness by educating workers and staff on potential risks to respiratory health in agriculture. We advocate training agricultural workers on best practices, safety equipment, and how to best prevent injuries and illnesses. Feel free to use the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety’s list of resources to ensure people working in agriculture know how to keep their lungs as healthy as possible.

For more information on the dangers of asbestos in particular and how it can lead to health issues, such as mesothelioma cancer, the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance can be used as a resource for questions and answers. For additional questions related to fumigants, dusts, pesticides, molds and biosolarization, please contact the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS).

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Stories from the Field: Returning to a Local Community Clinic to Promote Health and Safety Leslie Olivares November 14, 2017

Clínica Tepati is a student-run volunteer clinic that works to provide healthcare to the uninsured Latino community in Sacramento.

Migrant Farmworkers Visit the Clinic

The clinic becomes a safe haven for vulnerable people who face many barriers with attaining healthcare, including being undocumented, unable to afford healthcare, or only being able to speak and understand Spanish, for which the clinic always has translators on hand. It is no surprise that some of the clinic’s patients are migrant farmworkers.

Because the clinic depends on the availability of volunteer doctors and medical students to work with patients, it is difficult to provide care to patients right away. Many times patients spend hours in the waiting room.

Sometimes educators from various disciplines, such as nutrition, labor rights, exercise, etc., stop by and give free classes. This not only provides patients with valuable knowledge, but also makes the long wait more bearable.

WCAHS Outreach Taught Clinic Patients About Heat Illness Prevention

Leslie Olivares presenting information on heat illness prevention to waiting patients at Clínica Tepati this past summer.

With the high temperatures this past summer, our WCAHS outreach team decided to visit the clinic and give a short presentation on heat illness prevention. Having been a student volunteer there as an undergraduate at UC Davis, it was definitely a nostalgic experience coming back to the clinic.

I had always seen educators come by, and sometimes even helped them by translating or preparing materials, but it hadn't crossed my mind that I would one day be the one playing that role.

I was so happy to see how eager to learn the patients were and how open they were to sharing their own personal experiences for the purpose of adding to the lesson.

A Rewarding Experience

I think I speak for the whole Outreach Team when I say that working with the patents of Clínica Tepati was a rewarding experience that we enjoyed this summer.

Clínica Tepati is one of many student-run clinics at UC Davis, and we are happy to say that we have worked at health fairs along with their sister clinic Knights Landing One Health Center, which also serves the Latino community with a focus on agricultural workers.

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Reducing Lower Back Pain Related to Farming Jie Zhou November 08, 2017
Small Grants: Big Impact

Lower back pain is one of most serious health problems for farmworkers, and it can result from the intensive manual work that farming requires, such as carrying heavy objects or working long hours in a stooped posture.

My research focuses on preventing lower back pain from occurring and identifying potential activities that improve the back health of farmworkers. I recently received graduate student funding from WCAHS to pursue this work with WCAHS Associate Director Fadi Fathallah.

Intervertebral discs (yellow) between 2 vertebraIntervertbral disc injury causes lower back pain

Intervertebral disc (IVD) injury is one of the leading causes of lower back pain. Each IVD consists of a layer of cartilage between two bony vertebrae of the spine, kind of like the cream part of an Oreo cookie with the vertebrate being the chocolate pieces.

IVDs act as spinal shock absorbers and allow for safe spinal movement. Because they are integral to spinal function, any injury to them from overloading or age-related degeneration may cause poor spinal health or make other spinal tissues more vulnerable to injury, thus, resulting in lower back pain.

What happens with heavy loads, stooping and age

As we go through our daily activities, such a lifting or sitting, each IVD experiences miscellaneous loads (forces) that cause the discs to change shape and composition. Under heavy loads, such as carrying full harvest boxes or moving large hay bales, disc height and water content are reduced, so their shock absorbing ability decreases.

Nursery growers can spend long hours stooped over tending plants or moving them.

As we age or with physical overuse, the IVDs begin to degenerate by shrinking and drying out, which can result in pain. Farmworkers who carry heavy loads all day or stay in stooped postures for long periods of time, every day, are particularly at risk.

Advanced stages IVD degeneration can be difficult to treat. Therefore, the ability to evaluate early abnormalities in disc shape and/or composition may help treat lower back pain and prevent further IVD injury.

Studying lower back injury with MRI and pig spines

I am working on a study to determine if magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect early IVD degenerative changes. MRIs generate detailed images of the internal body, including soft tissue and bone, and are routinely used by doctors to diagnose health conditions.

To do this, we are using pig spines as a model of the human spine. Different loads are applied to the spine to simulate daily activities, and an MRI machine at the UC Davis Nuclear Magnetic Resonance facility collects and compares images of IVDs before and after loading.

We just finished imaging the IVDs and are currently analyzing the acquired MRI results.  Hopefully, the findings can be used to develop new safety measures to prevent IVD degenerative changes and lower back pain in farmworkers. 

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