Farmworker Health and Safety

By Sapna E. Thottathil Program Associate for the Health Care Without Harm Healthy Food in Health Care Program Physicians for Social Responsibility, San Francisco Bay Chapter on July 9, 2012

As the health care sector steps forward in support of healthy and sustainable food systems, two critical considerations are the health and safety of the workers producing our foods.

Between two and three million farmworkers across the United States are regularly exposed to toxic pesticides. Studies released by the National Institutes of Health link pesticide exposure to neurological illnesses, including Parkinson’s disease. Even contact with residual agricultural chemicals and pesticide drift has been connected to birth defects and cancer in their populations.

Farmworkers are also regularly subject to heat exhaustion. For example, NPR News reported on a 17-year-old pregnant woman who collapsed and died in 2008 while tying grapevines in a California field. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such fatalities are not uncommon, and heat is a leading cause of work-related death in agricultural workers at a rate nearly 20 times greater than that for all other U.S. civilian workers.

Other problems affecting farmworkers include lower life expectancy, malnutrition, and lack of access to safe and clean housing and water, yet many of these occupational hazards go unaddressed because farmworkers are usually marginalized populations. Their socioeconomic future is vulnerable due to poor wages (often less than minimum wage), unreliable work schedules, minimal English skills, and uncertain immigration status.

As Peter O’Driscoll, Project Director for the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), points out, “Farmworkers are excluded from most of the basic labor and safety standards that apply in other sectors. Even the few rules that do exist for them are rarely enforced.”

One Solution: Third-Party Fair Labor Certification

Advocacy organizations and farmworkers have begun to address these occupational and environmental issues with third-party fair labor certification. Through certification programs, accredited auditors inspect participating farms for compliance with state and national regulations, provision of fair wages for workers, and maintenance of safe working conditions that minimize workers’ exposure to chemicals. Products from complying farms are then labeled for enhanced consumer knowledge.

Fair labor certification promises numerous benefits. “It offers, on a large scale, the kinds of things that farmworker unions have been trying to provide for several years,” says Margaret Reeves, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network. It also creates avenues for the “meeting of retailers and suppliers that share core values of worker safety and environmental protection, helping to build trust and relationships with sectors and partners who haven’t typically worked together,” she continues.

According to EFI’s O’Driscoll, certification creates opportunities for farmworkers to become “part of the solution to generalized concerns about food safety and pesticide use.” For example, producers can choose to train workers in preventing food safety-related problems at the point of production as part of the certification process. “Training and dialogue with management provide farmworkers with incentives to tackle these concerns,” explains O’Driscoll.

Role of Health Care

Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) Healthy Food in Health Care Program provides resources and guidance to hospitals and facilities looking to source produce that is produced with fair labor in mind. Gary Cohen, Founder, President, and Executive Director of HCWH, argues, “Health care has a mission-related imperative to address farmworker health, since the reliance on chemical-intensive industrial agriculture is contributing to chronic disease. Second, there has been a great deal of interest in sourcing cage-free poultry and other meat products that don’t harm animals. We should at least be treating farmworkers as well as chickens and protecting their health.”

Sandy Brown of Swanton Berry Farms in California welcomes a partnership with hospitals: “I think it’s a great idea for hospitals and health care providers to get involved. Institutional buyers play a role in motivating suppliers to make changes more so than individual customers because of aggregate buying.”

Brown suggests that hospitals release priority-sourcing guidelines to suppliers and also recommends that health care facilities partner with farmers interested in undergoing the certification process for the first time.

Several emerging and developed labor certification projects throughout the country target farms of various sizes and types:

Existing and Emerging Labor Certification for U.S. Farmworkers*
Agricultural Justice Project (AJP)
EquiTABLE Food Initiative (EFI)
Fair Trade Sustainability Alliance (FairTSA)
Food Alliance
Scientific Certification Systems
Sustainable Agriculture Standard

*While labor is a component in all of these programs, fair labor is not a requirement in all of them.

The Healthy Food in Health Care Program is led by a team of representatives from the following HCWH partners:

  • Ecology Center
  • Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
  • Institute for a Sustainable Future
  • Healthlink
  • Maryland Hospitals for a Healthy Environment
  • Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility
  • San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility
  • Vermont Fresh
  • Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility
  • Women’s Health and Environmental Network

Case Study:

Swanton Berry Farms and the Agricultural Justice Project

Swanton Berry Farms is one of the first farms in the nation to explore fair labor certification for farm work with the Agricultural Justice Project. Photo courtesy of Swanton Berry Farms

Swanton Berry Farms, a 200-acre California farm with strawberries and mixed vegetables, is one of the first farms in California (and the nation) to explore fair labor certification for farm work with the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). AJP’s standards address issues ranging from equitable contracts for farmers and buyers to conflict resolution policies to adequate housing.

Sandy Brown, cofounder of Swanton Berry Farms is excited about Swanton’s involvement in the program’s pilot stage and the fair labor certification’s potential benefits. “The certification recognizes farms that are doing a relatively good job,” she states. “Having another set of eyes pass over protocols and policies and then receiving verification that you’re doing what you say you’re doing are really beneficial. Certification is a motivation system for a better management system,” she adds.

In addition to its work with AJP, Swanton Berry Farms offers an employee stock ownership plan through which everyone who works 500 hours or more a year gets shares in the company. The farm is also unionized with the United Farm Workers.

Regional Healthy Food in Health Care Happenings:

Education and Networking Events in Your Area

Healthy Food in Health Care National Webinar Series
July 12 3:00–4:00 pm EST Theme: Healthy Beverages
September 13 3:00–4:00 pm EST Theme: Sustainable Procurement
November 8 3:00–4:00 pm EST Theme: Balanced Menus

For more information, contact

Sixth National Farm to Cafeteria Conference: Digging In!

August 2–5 Burlington, Vermont
Conference registration opened May 2012
For more details, visit

For More Information