Farmworkers: ECU libraries expand health information access

As part of a grant-funded effort to address the lack of health information for migrant farmworkers and their families, staff in Laupus Health Sciences Library at East Carolina University are helping to expand and transform resources into accessible content for this eastern North Carolina population.

In 2019, ECU earned a three-year, $427,551 health disparities grant from the National Library of Medicine (NLM) to help ECU and its collaborators — including Laupus Library, North Carolina State University’s Extension Toxicology program and the nonprofit group Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) — get critical health and safety information and equipment into farmworkers’ hands.

The latest efforts build on what began in 2017 as a pilot grant. The project, led by College of Health and Human Performance faculty member Dr. Joseph Lee and ECU’s Academic Library Services team, secured a $15,000 grant from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine. The project also includes support from the Department of Health Education and Promotion and SAF.

Health information materials include comic books for children.

The collaboration provided internet access and information literacy training for middle and high school students from migrant and seasonal farmworker families.

The latest efforts took Jamie Bloss, a Laupus liaison librarian, on the road to Wake Forest University in search of patient education materials specifically targeted at addressing farmworker health and safety topics.

North Carolina ranks sixth nationally in the employment of migrant farmworkers, with approximately 150,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families living in the state each growing season.

Migrant and seasonal farmworkers are at elevated risk for incidents of heat-related illness, pesticide exposure and occupational hazards. Lack of connectivity and digital resources often leads to other health-related disparities including separation from families, many living abroad, resulting in isolation and mental health challenges. These challenges stem from the limited labor protections and meager earnings prevalent among farmworkers.

Bloss met with Phillip Summers, a Wake Forest researcher who has written on topics including child work safety on farms of local agricultural market producers and the impacts of pesticides on brain function in LatinX immigrant farmworkers.

“He offered for us to come visit Wake Forest University and come see the flipcharts, pamphlets, DVDs and other items they have created over the years especially regarding farmworker health issues dealing with pesticides and other work safety issues,” Bloss said.

Bloss said the Wake Forest team weren’t the only ones willing to contribute.

“Individuals from across the state who work on research with farmworker health or who are health outreach workers themselves had sent me many materials to be organized, cataloged in a spreadsheet, and shared out from our grant website,” she said.

The team also benefited from the expertise of Dr. Thomas Arcury, a medical anthropologist and public health scientist at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and Dr. Sara Quandt, professor of epidemiology and prevention in Wake Forest’s medical school.

Much of Arcury’s research has focused on addressing the occupational and environmental health of immigrant workers.

“I think we were all very excited at the prospect of meeting with Wake Forest faculty especially for myself after reading some of their articles and knowing how involved in farmworker health research they are,” Bloss said. “The farmworker health research world is fairly small still, and it was great to meet with them in person and build that relationship through this meeting and sharing of patient education materials.”

Bloss and some of the student research assistants on the grant have also worked on arranging the gathered research materials into a searchable document that outreach workers and community health workers across the state can use.

“I have combed through more than 800 items that we made available via links in a large PDF document by topic, so that community health workers, health professionals, and anyone looking for information on health conditions that migrant and seasonal workers experience could more easily find these materials in one place,” she said. “After three years of working on this grant I thought I had seen the full scope of what patient education materials were available for farmworkers on the web, so I was pretty excited and impressed when I saw the things that were offered to us from Phillip and Dr. Arcury were ones I had never come across before in my searching efforts.”

The items will eventually be sorted into collections — one of physical materials donated by outreach, health workers, and researchers from across the state, and one web-based collection.

Bloss said the benefits of having the collections available are widespread.

“It raises awareness of the issues farmworkers and those in rural areas face working in these conditions,” she said.

The materials could be used by future researchers interested in immigrant or minority health would find this collection valuable. It can also inspire future health educators to update and make newer health education materials.

“The collection can benefit our history collections by building relationships with donors from outside the university, and provide items that could one day be used in future exhibits or to inspire future talks,” Bloss said.

Layne Carpenter, Laupus Library’s archivist, said the materials lend to cultural diversity and accessibility as well.

“It is important to have Spanish language materials in our collection as well,” she said. “The fact that these materials were produced in North Carolina for migrant farmworkers in the state makes them a significant addition to our collection.”

Bloss said the way researchers and librarians from across the state are sharing information, materials and resources speaks to the importance of collaboration and partnerships that benefit various populations in North Carolina.

“It is better not to work in a silo when you are conducting research in the same area,” she said. “We all share the common goal of lessening health disparities and making people’s lives better through participatory or community engaged research. Therefore, any kind of contact, partnerships, collegiality that can be built, or shared materials and resources are important and really special.”