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RESPIRAR: A Journey into the Heart of Migrant Worker Health

Updated: Dec 4, 2023


In Maryland, our team is conducting incredible work alongside an interdisciplinary group to better understand the health disparities faced by Black and Latinx migrant and seasonal farmworkers (MSFWs). These workers are often exposed to unsafe environments and toxic chemicals on the job, yet rarely offered sick leave or medical care when they fall ill.


The project, known as “Research Employing Environmental Health Policy and Occupational Health Systems Analysis to Interrupt the Impact of Structural Racism on Farmworkers and Their Respiratory Health (RESPIRAR)”, is a collaboration between multiple partners, including the University of Maryland, to explore the environmental and legal inequities faced by farmworkers and help shape future policy.


Listening to Underserved Voices


As part of this project, CATA's Maryland team, Leila Borrero Krouse and Jean-Frandy Philogene and the University of Maryland's team are visiting seasonal worker housing to assess air quality. They are also conducting SARS-CoV2 and other respiratory virus testing on MSFWs. This interdisciplinary project will optimize living and working conditions for better health protection and help control future infectious disease outbreaks among these vulnerable workers.


The RESPIRAR project is made possible by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. You can learn more about this project and the incredible work being done at www.respirarproject.org.


Trusted Messengers


What progress has been made so far in assessing seasonal farmworkers' housing conditions and respiratory health? Respirar team has visited over 70 workers across Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne, Somerset, and Wicomico counties.


In the project, they are conducting air quality testing, screening for COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, assessing housing conditions, including how far apart the beds are, looking at shared bathroom and kitchen facilities, and more to study how the housing impacts workers.


An added benefit is the questionnaire given to workers hints at needed housing upgrades like adding screens, controlling pests, and installing ventilation. Just asking these questions raises awareness of risk factors. We’ve seen sanitation improvements in migrant housing from this study.


Naming Injustice


This project seeks to diagnose, better understand, and craft proposals to combat structural inequalities and improve migrant working conditions and protections.


What are some key hazards identified in farmworker housing from visits and air tests? While some housing is adequate, much is in terrible shape - trailers, overflowing laundry, snakes, poor air quality, no AC. Some workers have to buy their own cooling units. Overcrowded bunkhouse rooms of 15-20 workers per building cluster everyone together by one kitchen.


COVID can spread easily when asymptomatic. Our team helps migrants stay vigilant against the virus. We measure temperature, humidity, CO2, and particulates then offer ventilation advice like adding floor fans or keeping windows open.


Overcoming Obstacles


What challenges occurred during outreach? Though generally welcomed, we faced resistance from a motel manager housing plantation workers. When our team first interviewed migrants for the health study, he aggressively and demeaningly tried impeding the conversations.


Unable to complete assessments that day, we regrouped. Soon after, the team met with participants at a nearby laundry facility, continuing the respiratory health surveys. Though initially deterred, we persisted with this vital project, refusing to abandon the migrant families.


Constructing trust remains fundamental to the project’s success. Through compassion and commitment to these communities, we strive to expand our positive impact. There is still much work countering longtime exploitation, but we cannot shrink from that challenge if we aim to create lasting change.


Empowering Through Education


Participating in this respiratory health study also provides an avenue for us to educate workers on defending their rights. We share contact information for support services like Legal Aid and the Migrant Workers Center.


Though initial hesitation existed, familiarity has grown. Participants now enthusiastically recommend the study within their social networks, expanding our grassroots reach. This empowerment from inside the community amplifies our ability to serve more migrants.


The Road Ahead


How can community members participate or follow the project? Contact Jean-Frandy Philogene at jphilogene@cata-farmworkers.org.


What’s next? We wrapped up our camps visits during the last week of October and convened to review initial findings and plan the next steps. Though our sampling ended, we met with participants to distribute gifts as a token of thanks for their time and participation. Most migrants travel to other states for off-season work and wish to rejoin the study upon returning. We will expand eligibility to involve more workers next season.


Until then, we will strategize improvements to the project and farmworkers’ situation through meetings and preparation. There is still vital work needed to eliminate environmental health disparities unjustly impacting agricultural communities.

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