In the morning, tobacco leaves are wet. Many are unaware how toxic working in those fields can be.
“When you’re out there working when the leaves are wet, the water gets on your skin and goes into your pores,” Guillermo Fernandez said. “That means the nicotine is getting into your pores.”
That may result in Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), a nicotine poisoning that strikes when tobacco plants are handled. Symptoms may include vomiting, nausea and dizziness.
“If they get this, it pretty much means they could have smoked 36 cigarettes in one day,” he said while explaining the equivalency. “Many people don’t know that.”
Through the Farmworkers Health and Safety Education program at the Sampson County Cooperative Extension Office, Guillermo Fernandez is working to prevent GTS from harming farm workers. It’s one of many lessons taught through the program along with pesticide safety and heat stress prevention. It helps agricultural employers and employees with Workers Protection Standard (WPS) compliance training.
Fernandez is currently serving as the Farmworker Health and Safety Educator for the local extension office.
“I want this program to be known and I want to help as many farmworkers as I can,” he said. “This program is here to help.”
The Union High School graduate came from a family of farmworkers and understands the importance of proper education. He began in May and his first session was with Fann Farms in Salemburg with about 70 workers present. During the training, bottle pouches designed to keep drinks cool were distributed with the assistance of the Episcopal Farm Worker Ministry. More than 1,500 have been distributed.
Now, he would like to reach out to more farmers to educate farmers on pesticides and safety for their workers. Many of them would like to receive training on tobacco next year, but Fernandez said employees can also receive training for sweet potato season.
“I don’t want the farmworkers to think just because tobacco season is over, that they can’t do these trainings,” Fernandez said.
He stressed that the hands-on training and provided educational tools are more effective than farmers just showing videos.
“We talk to them and we provide more content than the videos do,” he said regarding topics such as proper clothing, toxicity levels, symptoms of sickness or helping an ill coworker.
Some of the other lessons include taking breaks and staying away from energy drinks because of the contents.
“They speed up the heart rate and when you’re working in the heat, your heart rate is already sped up,” he said. “There’s actually been cases here in North Carolina where farmers don’t wake up because of these drinks.”
The extension’s program receives recognition from the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), an audit program of the United State Department of Agriculture and the North Carolina Department of Labor. Farmers are required to comply with Environmental Protection Agency’s Worker Protection Standard if they own or manage a farm, forest, nursery or greenhouse where pesticides are used in the production of agricultural plants. The requirement also goes for anyone who hires employees for agriculture places that use pesticides. The free program assist with this process.
In 2016, more than 1,280 farmworkers were trained through the program during 28 training. It also assisted 94 farmers. The health program began a few years ago in Wayne County and later expanded to other counties such as Johnston and Sampson.
The extension office is also hosting a free Spanish workshop for labor contractors and crew leaders. It is set for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21, at the Johnson County Cooperative Extension Office, 2736 N.C. Highway 210, Smithfield. During the educational workshop Farm Labor Contractors (FLCs) will receive information on a variety of topics related to health and safety. Some of the others include FLC registration, housing, human trafficking and employment discrimination. Lunch will be provided.
Fernandez said extension would like to get more crew leaders involved.
“That’s our big goal right now — to get more crew leaders involved,” he said. “They’re the community that’s kind of hidden.”
For more information about the education program or the upcoming workshop, contact Fernandez at 910-592-7161 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Luis Cruz, a farmworker health and safety educator for Wayne and Johnston counties, may also be reached at 919-210-8805 for assistance with the FLC workshop.
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.