Farmworkers, H1N1 Flu, Disease Outbreaks and the Vegetable Industry

Gordon Johnson, Extension Ag Agent, Kent Co.;

The recent flu outbreak that is thought to have originated in Mexico or Southern California has brought to attention the need to educate farm workers about health issues and the need for growers to be aware of how to approach this and similar illness outbreaks in their seasonal labor force.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued some guidance on how to deal with the current outbreak. These guidelines are being updated and will be posted at when completed. However, some of the principles that they put forth in the interim guidance for employers of migrant and seasonal farmworkers for the prevention of the novel H1N1 flu virus would be useful to review. The following are some excerpted recommendations:

Avoid stigmatization – While Mexico may be the origin of the current flu outbreak, it is important to let workers know that the source of any illness is hard to determine and that they are not going to be singled out or segregated just because of where they come from.

Encourage workers to report illness to their employer – “Low-wage farmworkers may be reluctant to forego wages or possibly forfeit their jobs to stay home when they are ill. It is important that employer policies not discourage self-reporting and self-isolation by ill workers. To the extent possible, employers should provide some assurance of wage or job protection for ill workers who are willing to self-isolate or who need to be absent from work to seek medical care.”

Exclude ill workers from the workplace – “Workers who have symptoms of a flu-like illness (fever with runny nose, cough or sore throat) should not be allowed to work while they are ill. They should be encouraged to remain at home until they are better or, if necessary, to seek medical care from their health care provider.” (This should apply to any illness that has a high potential to be transmitted to other workers.)

Ensure public health messages reach workers – “Employers may be an important conduit for information coming from public health officials. Employers should ensure that all information from public health authorities is passed on to workers.” “Health awareness messages should be in languages appropriate to the local migrant worker population.”

Ensure a hygienic workplace – “Personal hygiene measures such as frequent hand washing and cough etiquette are important factors in limiting the spread of infection during a pandemic.” “Employers should ensure that the workplace has adequate facilities for maintaining personal hygiene, including frequent hand washing.”

Ensure adequate housing when housing is provided by the employer – “When worker housing is provided, employers should ensure that housing is not overcrowded and can accommodate the isolation of ill persons and voluntary quarantine of contacts.”