Reflections on my life’s work training farmworkers
By Dina Gonzalez, Telamon Maryland & Delaware
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Virtually everything I know about pesticide safety and heat prevention, I learned as an active member of SAFE AmeriCorps in the Association of Opportunity Programs for Agricultural Workers and at Telamon Corporation. Thanks to SAFE AmeriCorps, I developed training techniques, built relationships with employers and farm workers, and made new friendships in different states. When I started with AmeriCorps I focused more on pesticide safety, then I started teaching about heat stress prevention. These days, I continue to provide both trainings that are vital for the protection and health of agricultural workers.
In Maryland, Telamon has a directory of farm owners that we usually use to coordinate trainings according to their needs. Sometimes the owners of the farms call us, and we go. In general, the owners of the farms have a clean place, ready with chairs and in the shade so that we can provide the training. Otherwise, we reserve a date to go train agricultural workers in their free time. We prepare well for training. This includes re-thinking and re-learning the material, and in addition we bring all the necessary materials to provide an excellent training but in a way that includes all levels. I always have a cart prepared with the training curricula, take-home materials, training tools and much more. In recent years we have been providing workers with long-sleeved shirts, long pants and clothing to use outside of work for both men and women and often for children. Usually women take materials home for the family, and we provide them the bandannas that AFOP sends us every year, laundry bags in which to put dirty clothes, and written material.
I remember on one occasion a worker asked me, “Why do you always come back and repeat the same thing?” I answered, “Do you protect yourself from the same pesticides you work with all the time?” He said, “Not really.” I said, “Well, that’s why we always come – to remind you to protect yourself from pesticides and heat all the time.” The worker replied, “Thanks for doing this, I will pay more attention to my own protection!”
In this area [Maryland], tomatoes, watermelons, melons, different types of berries, a variety of peaches, pears and apples, assorted sweet and spicy chilies, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cabbages are grown. We also see farms with ornamental plants and trees and many corn plantations, but usually these plantations do not need our services because they use more machinery than people, and they say they train their staff with videos.
Unfortunately, in the last year we have lost the opportunity to offer several trainings, because owners have replaced us with videos. Usually the employer puts the video on in what looks like a waiting room while they fill out applications. This video is not interactive and the workers do not pay enough attention. We have also found farms where one of the owners is certified to give the trainings. But who checks if they actually trained the agricultural workers or that they were really trained effectively? Besides, this video does not provide information about heat stress, which is so vital in this state.
The biggest violation I have seen in relation to the worker protection rule is when fumigation is taking place. According to many agricultural workers, there is not enough personal protection for workers. During my outreach I emphasize this point a lot. Unfortunately, they protect themselves as best they can and demand that their employers provide the necessary equipment to perform their duties. I have seen how, sometimes, when we bring in equipment for those who apply pesticides, they are amazed because they do not even recognize it. Thanks to my training they can see the equipment, the masks, and the protective gloves. This results in having a better idea of what to use while applying pesticides. Also, in my training I teach them to read the pesticide labels so they know exactly what equipment they need to apply the pesticide.
One change that I have seen over the years is that there are not many workers using tennis shoes to work in the fields; now they wear more suitable and waterproof shoes. They are wearing more gloves, although they have to buy them because they are not provided by many employers. They are wearing more long-sleeved shirts and light colors. They have received the message that prevention is the best protection. Seeing this makes me feel very proud that my message is reaching them. And they are becoming aware and are incorporating what they learned into their daily routines.
My professional career since SAFE AmeriCorps has been a very unique one. I fell in love with the farming community and since then I have always wanted to work with them and for them. Unfortunately, in 2012 the SAFE AmeriCorps program ended, and I thought I would be out of work since there was no position available for me at Telamon. I worked with the Health Department in my community as a “Health Educator and Outreach worker” in the KOMEN program to help Hispanic women in education and early detection of breast cancer. But my interest to work with the agricultural community was still beating in my heart. So, I applied for a new position in Telamon as “Field Service Representative (FSR)”. Then I applied for a new position as “Workforce Development Specialist I” (WDS I). My commitment and dedication took me to where I am today, wishing for equality, health and safety for all agricultural workers.
Thanks to the scholarship I received from SAFE AmeriCorps, I have been able to study in an English language program. Also, I am currently studying the course, “Fundamentals of Supervision and Management” at Wor-Wic Community College. SAFE AmeriCorps formed the basis of what I am now professionally, and Telamon gave me the opportunity to develop all those skills learned in this field. The sky is the limit and I go for more: for me, for my family, and for my agricultural workers.
Dina Gonzalez works for Telamon Maryland/Delaware as a Workforce Development Specialist. She has a long history with AFOP and with farmworkers, and is a very effective and reliable health & safety trainer.