Farmworker Health in Puerto Rico and the Mainland: Place Makes a Difference

National Farm Safety Week took place last month, from September 16 through September 22. Unfortunately, just last week, one day after a bill purported to address heat-related injuries and deaths in California was defeated, another farmworker lost his life due to heat. Occupational fatality rates indicate that every 17 hours a farmworker dies in the U.S. due to work-related injuries, according to AFOP’s calculations. This piece looks at differences between farmworkers in the Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. to try to gain insight as to how we can better protect workers from health and safety hazards on the job.

My colleague, Melanie Forti, and I had recently had the opportunity to observe workers on a banana plantation in Puerto Rico and ask them questions about the measures they take to prevent heat stress. We went there for a site visit with AFOP’s member organization in Puerto Rico, PathStone Corporation. While there, I was quite surprised by how different working conditions in Puerto Rico are from those in the continental U.S. My observations help illustrate just how important farmworkers’ social context is in protecting their health and safety on the job.

On the U.S. mainland, employers often fail to provide workers with drinking water. For those who do, they typically place coolers at the end of long crop rows where farmworkers only have access during breaks. The farmworkers we speak with rarely drink the recommended eight ounces per 15 minutes as a result. Additionally, when workers on the mainland suffer from symptoms of heat stress, they are often reluctant to seek medical care for fear of losing their jobs, the lack of transportation, and lack of health insurance. Finally, they often find it difficult to get employers to allow their workers just 30 minutes to learn about the simple, but critically important actions workers can take to improve their health and safety.

What I saw in Puerto Rico is in stark contrast to the situation on the mainland. In Puerto Rico, management gave our trainer nearly three hours to instruct more than 20 workers. The company provides workers with large personal canteens for water that they bring into the fields. One worker who reported he once suffered a heat-related illness told us he sought medical attention without hesitation and all of the other workers we spoke with said they would do the same. The workers agreed the situation on their farm was not unique. While I can’t generalize about all workers in Puerto Rican agriculture from this one observation, there is clearly something going on setting these farmworkers’ experiences apart.

Farmworkers in Puerto Rico listen to information being provided by a PathStone Puerto Rico staff member.

To some degree, farmworkers in Puerto Rico and the rest of the U.S. are fairly similar: most speak Spanish, earn close to minimum wage, and have low levels of formal education. In general, approximately 53 percent of U.S. farmworkers are undocumented, and of those remaining workers who are legally authorized to work in the U.S., only 25 percent are U.S. citizens.  Many farmworkers are excluded from unemployment insurance because they are not U.S. citizens or they live in states that exempt smaller farms and seasonal workers from coverage. Puerto Rico’s farmworkers are mostly U.S. citizens and, as a result, are eligible for unemployment insurance, public health insurance coverage, and other public benefits provided to residents by the commonwealth. Workers on smaller farms are not excluded from unemployment coverage. Puerto Rico’s farmworkers are not migrants, but live with their families and commute to work. Together, all of these factors mean farmworkers in Puerto Rico have more power and security than their mainland counterparts.  If they speak up about unsafe conditions, they need not worry about their employer calling immigration authorities in retaliation. If they lose their job after speaking up, they know they can get at least some income by collecting unemployment. If they need to see a doctor after suffering an injury or illness on the job, most are eligible for the commonwealth’s public health insurance program, which covers low-income residents.

Here on the mainland, we could learn a few things from Puerto Rico about treating farmworkers.

To find out more about the job training and support services that PathStone offers to Puerto Rico’s farmworkers, visit their website.




This entry was posted in Health & Safety Programs and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.