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First federal center focused on farmworker health and safety to open in Chicago

A farmworker poses for a photo standing amidst a row of crops.
Linda Forst photo.

The University of Illinois Chicago will receive $6 million from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to establish the newest Agricultural Safety and Health Center in the U.S. The new center, called the Great Lakes Center for Farmworker Health and Wellbeing, will be housed at the UIC School of Public Health.

In Illinois, 35,000 to 55,000 farmworkers migrate or shift into agriculture in summer. They typically live in extreme poverty, with poor housing, limited transportation, food insecurity, lack of health care and preventive services, and long distances to social services.

“These workers are profoundly disadvantaged, despite their critical importance to the food supply chain. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I think everyone understood the important role they play,” said Dr. Linda Forst, the UIC School of Public Health professor who led the proposal for the new center and will serve as its director. “Farmworkers are a precious resource in the United States, and we should want to protect that resource.”

En español

Forst’s research has focused on the occupational health of low-wage workers and contingent, seasonal or precariously employed workers. She said that farmworkers who fall into this category are the most disadvantaged workforce in the United States.

Among the most dangerous job sectors in the country, the farming industry has the highest death rate per 100,000 workers.

“They don’t have paid sick leave, they don’t have access to health care,” said Forst, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the UIC School of Public Health. “And they really don’t have choices about whether they work or they don’t work, because their wages are so low.”

Many farmworkers, she noted, are not formally employed, so it is very difficult for public institutions to collect data on them. NIOSH has funded several of Forst’s projects on farmworkers, and the center will include a new collaboration between the UIC School of Public Health and the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which has key connections with the farming industry.

The center will begin its research in Illinois with a census of all the migratory, seasonal and H2-A visa farmworkers in the state to get a basic headcount of the workforce along with a tabulation of farm-related injuries. The center team will then translate NIOSH’s Worker Wellbeing Questionnaire into Spanish and administer it to the Illinois farmworker population.

The center researchers are working to secure funding for a third research project that would allow them to conduct blood tests for biomarkers of stress and inflammation in farmworkers to see how these relate to health and well-being. Center researchers also will network with NIOSH Agricultural Centers and researchers in other states.

Forst’s collaborators include Elena Grossman, Tessa Bonney, Michael Siciliano, Tim Johnson, Dana Madigan and Lee Friedman from UIC, and Josie Rudolphi, Salah Issa, Jessica Brinkworth and Charee Thompson from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In addition, the University of Illinois Extension, Community Health Partnership of Illinois, Legal Aid Chicago and several government and non-government organizations will take part in the center’s work.

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