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Building a Positive Farm Business Culture: Perceptions of Health and Safety Among Latin/Hispanic Dairy Workers

By Maria Fuenzalida Valenzuela, John Shutske

Farming continues to be among the deadliest occupations in the U.S.1 and in Wisconsin2 with a per-capita workplace death rate that is 7-8 times higher than all other industries combined. Most smaller farm operations with 10 or fewer total employees are not subject to routine enforcement activities by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)3-4 or other agencies that regulate workplace safety and health unless those farms provide worker housing.

As a result of some of the differences between worker/workplace regulations that impact farms and farm workers and those in other industries, sometimes farm workers (and their employers) are left in an uncertain position that can be confusing and frustrating for all involved. What can farmers do to keep their workers safe and healthy while at work? Learning and understanding what the perceptions of health and safety among Latin/Hispanic dairy workers are will improve the farm business culture by showing that employers care about their employee’s lives. Building a positive culture can result in better communications, better or improved safety for employees, improved retention and higher levels of production and efficiency.

Researchers have documented and reported perceptions of health and safety among Latin/Hispanic dairy farm workers about the work itself, the physical environment, equipment issues, the social-psychological environment, and management/organizational factors.5-6  We’ve summarized that information and provided recommendations to address specific concerns.

Perception #1 – the Work

High workload and pressure to work fast. Workers have emphasized the negative impact of high workload on safety and productivity. They indicated the importance of teamwork to get the work done and suggested that workload can be decreased by more clearly delegated responsibilities or hiring more workers6.

Recommendation: Farm managers should review staffing levels to make sure coverage is adequate and that workers have a clear understanding of who is in charge.

Shift and work schedule. Workers indicated the importance of having 8-hour shifts that will allow them to rest and having weekends as days off. Another issue was oversight during night shifts as manager are not present to help dealing with problems6.

Recommendation: Clearly outlining schedule expectations during the on-boarding process can limit misunderstandings. Also, farm workers should know (and be able to communicate with) who will oversee night shifts as to help them find solutions to any problem that might arise that could preclude them from doing their job.

Animal handling hazards. Cows can injure a worker by kicking, trampling, or crushing5-6. Workers believed that due to cow’s nature, it was difficult to prevent animal handling accidents. Workers suggested that getting more help from other co-workers might reduce the chance of getting injured5.

Recommendation: Training that focuses on animal behavior during times of stress can help address this concern, especially for workers who have limited experience with animal handling. It is important to emphasize the work on a farm as a teamwork effort, thus, workers can be there for each other when needed.

Perception # 2 – Physical Environment

Workers indicated many different environmental hazards and they mentioned the importance of addressing those hazards in a timely fashion5-6. Also, they described the need of job-specific training on environmental hazards.

Recommendation: A job safety analysis (JSA), followed by workers training sessions are a great way to make sure workers understand specific hazards that may be inherent to certain tasks. Remember training is not a one-time activity, you need to reinforce specific concepts on a timely basis.

Perception #3 – Equipment

Workers understood the dangerous nature of some machinery they must use, and they believe they need proper training about using those machines. Also, there are some dangers related to machines that are not kept in proper working order5.

Recommendation: Any workers using machinery should know what the inherent risks are associated with those machines, thus, make sure that workers who have been training in using a specific machine can use it—if a worker does not have the training that person cannot use the machine.

Workers indicated their willingness to fix machinery when broken but emphasized the need of proper/adequate equipment for maintenance (and regular maintenance from a professional). They indicated being fearful to report that some machinery is broken because managers could get angry or blame them5.

Recommendation: Make sure workers can report when a machine is not working properly without fear of reprisals. After you have trained workers on how to use machinery, clearly indicate how a piece of equipment or machinery should be used and kept.

Availability of PPE varied by farm. Workers understood the purpose of PPE but resisted using them due to not understanding risks, PPE impacting their ability to do their jobs, inconvenience, and not wanting to use PPE5. Workers need to be trained to use PPE and understand why they are using them.

Recommendation: It is important to build a culture around wearing PPE by making the manager/owner to use the PPE and lead by example.

Perception # 4 – Social-Psychological Environment

Some workers described having a good relationship with their supervisor or managers, whereas others indicated that their managers did not respect them or see them as human being because of their race/ethnicity5-6.

Recommendation: Farm owners and managers should make sure that workplace policies are fair and consistent for all workers. Workplace policies should include statements outlining the expectation of fair and equitable treatment of all employees, and what steps employees should take if they feel these expectations are not being met.

Workers indicated the importance of communication to promote safety and productivity. They indicated the importance of communication among all areas in the farm.

Recommendation: Farm managers should review their expectations with supervisors and team leads, so that communication is congenial, professional, and reflects a positive business culture.

Language is the big barrier, but not only for those who do not speak English, but also for workers who speak Spanish. They mentioned that due to the variety of Spanish jargon sometimes it was difficult to understand other co-workers whose mother tongue was Spanish. They suggest that frequent meetings, providing English classes, or having access to an unbiased translator (not another farm employee) can help improve communication on the farm—most importantly creating an environment where workers feel safe to speak up about their needs6.

Workers perceive clear cultural differences where better treatment is given to American workers compared to Latin American workers—they have felt both racism and discrimination within and outside of the dairy.

Recommendation: Farm managers should make sure that workplace policies are fair and consistent for all workers.

Perception # 5 – Management/organizational factors

Job position. Workers indicated that they have low levels of upward job mobility, and some mentioned that race/ethnicity played a role in those decision6.

Recommendation: Make sure that opportunities for career advancement are available for all employees and that employees are given clear expectations on what they can do to improve their skills.

Work organization. There is a need for cross-area communication to discuss safety and productivity. Farm workers described that having frequent meetings will improve communication within the farm.

Benefits. Overall, workers reported lack of knowledge about health insurance (i.e., coverage status). Also, they described that they have been told that injuries or accidents will be covered, only later figure out that they are fully responsible for all healthcare costs5-6. Injury management and workers’ compensation depended on the benevolence of their employer that ranged from none (employee gets injured seriously and must get work right away otherwise they are fired) to generous (employer pays for all hospital cost and half pay for days not worked)5.

Recommendation: For more information about benefits, compensation, reporting injuries and other workplace related topics go to the Department of Workforce Development website.

As for worker’s compensation, many workers knew little or nothing about it. This is important because it is the only way workers can access health care when injured on the job5.

Recommendation: For more information about benefits, compensation, reporting injuries and other workplace related topics go to the Department of Workforce Development website.

Injury reporting. Most immigrant dairy workers did not report accidents or injuries occurring while at work because they believe their boss is going to fire them. Some workers reported that their boss threaten to call immigration because there were too many accidents being brought to their attention—workers are fearful of reporting injuries5.

Recommendation: Farm leaders should explain the importance of injury reporting as a valuable training opportunity and a way to improve processes. Managers should encourage “near miss” reporting, as well.

Safety policies and procedures. Workers reported lack of or limited knowledge about safety policies and procedures of their dairy. Some workers reported that they had to report an accident or illness to the owner before seeking treatment or that their managers did not believe them until they presented a medical report5-6.

Recommendation: Make sure workers are trained in a regular basis. Training should encompass how to prevent and avoid inherent risk associated with their line of work.

Management characteristics. Workers indicated that they reported directly to managers/supervisors who dealt with day-to-day operations. Overall, workers perceived their managers more concerned about cow’s health as for their health and mentioned the lack of first aid supplies. Also, they mentioned that they need to access managers to do their jobs especially when something breaks down. Workers indicated that managers could be fair and respectful when talking to workers, available for communication and understand the job at hand as well as company politics6.

Recommendation: Farm owners should have an on-boarding process by which new employees are aware of the company’s politics (mission or anything that makes a farm unique), and other aspects related to the job and training required to do their job properly.

Job training. Workers indicated the importance of in-person training rather than a video. They emphasized that a trainer needs to be experienced, educated, good at teaching, friendly, and considerate of the worker—tips to improve effectiveness and efficiency and explanations for why doing activities are valued and needed by workers6.

Safety training. Workers’ training varied from monthly to not at all. In-person and video-based training were perceived as more beneficial as other training formats—safety training need to be focused on dairy work, not in any other area6.

Source :

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