UF to receive nearly $10 million to support new agricultural safety and health center

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida has received a grant of nearly $10 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, for a five-year project to explore the occupational safety and health of people working in agriculture, fishing and forestry in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and North and South Carolina.

The goal of the new center is to conduct research and educational activities designed to promote occupational health and safety among Florida’s 47,000 farm operators and their families, as well as their employees and contractors.

“Much of the data about Florida’s agricultural safety and health is over a decade old,” said J. Glenn Morris, M.D., M.P.H., director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute and a professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and the UF College of Medicine. “We need to add to the body of knowledge about farming, fishing and forestry workers in the region, so we proposed establishing a center that will facilitate collaboration with researchers throughout the Southeast.”

Morris is the director of the center, called the Southeastern and Coastal Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, or SEC-CAgSH. It will be the 11th U.S. Agricultural Safety and Health center sponsored by NIOSH.

While the University of Florida is the hosting institution, researchers from the University of South Florida, Florida State University, Emory University and Florida A&M have all agreed to work together on projects aiming to better understand the region’s occupational safety and health needs. NIOSH has awarded the grant to UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions. Researchers from several UF colleges will participate.

“This center provides an exciting opportunity for UF faculty to use their scientific expertise to address vital public health questions that will enhance the safety and well-being of people whose work is critical to our agricultural and seafood industries,” said Michael G. Perri, Ph.D., dean of the College of Public Health and Health Professions.

Faculty members from the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or IFAS, are also involved in the project.

“Protecting the health of those who provide the labor for the $155 billion-a-year agriculture and natural resources industry has long been a focus area of IFAS research and Extension,” said Jack Payne, Ph.D., senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources. “UF is particularly qualified to address such complexities because of the comprehensive expertise it has.

“The partnership between IFAS research and Extension, PHHP and EPI will create a powerful interdisciplinary focus on agricultural safety and health that will provide the industry with the tools and training to maintain a healthy workforce,’’ Payne said.

The center will provide an opportunity to expand UF’s current training and outreach programs throughout the state and eventually the Southeast region, while developing new educational materials and methods of dissemination for diverse audiences.

Several projects are already underway. Andrew Kane, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of environmental and global health, serves as the center’s associate director and lead investigator of the research project focused on Gulf seafood worker safety.

Seafood industry workers are exposed to some of the greatest occupational risks nationally, according to Kane. While there are numerous anecdotal reports of injuries, very little data exists on worker health and safety in this largely self-employed and self-insured population. Kane’s team seeks to extend current knowledge about everyday hazards and risks in northeastern Gulf fisheries through surveys, direct observations, community engagement and expanded academic and community partnerships. The team will then develop, implement and assess community-based training activities aimed at reducing injuries.

Gregory Glass, Ph.D., and Joseph Grzywacz, Ph.D., will also lead projects at the center. Glass, a professor of geography and a member of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, will use remote sensing technology to estimate the levels of pesticide and herbicide usage in Florida’s croplands. Grzywacz, a professor in Florida State University’s College of Human Sciences and the chair of the department of family and child sciences, will develop and test whether safety and education materials produce changes in safety behaviors among Latino farmworkers.

Tracy Irani, Ph.D., a professor in UF/IFAS and the chair of the department of family, youth, and community sciences, will oversee the center’s outreach and community engagement efforts.

“Our role in the center will entail working with communities to identify the particular needs that are specific to agricultural production in Florida and the Southeast,” Irani said. “We also plan to develop new materials and utilize new media to reach our target populations in new ways.”

Agriculture, fishing and forestry comprise a multibillion-dollar industry in the state of Florida. Florida is the second largest producer of fresh fruit and vegetable crops in the nation. Oranges alone generate more than $1.3 billion of annual sales, ranking as Florida’s second most important single commodity after greenhouse/nursery products, according to the USDA. The farm value of fresh market tomatoes, the state’s third most important commodity, averages about $500 million annually.

The production and harvesting of these and other specialty crops grown in Florida depends on agricultural workers who produce and harvest citrus, fresh market vegetables, strawberries, blueberries and melons, as well as ornamental plants for the landscape and environmental horticulture sector.

According to a UF/IFAS study, one acre of tomatoes is estimated to require more than 200 labor hours to plant, grow, harvest and pack for the fresh market. One acre of citrus harvesting requires between 50 and 60 hours of manual labor.