Unveiling Perspectives: Agricultural Workers’ Views on Wildfire Smoke Hazards

Hurst, Parker, and Romo at Washington State Tree Fruit Association meeting in Kennewick, WA.
Hurst, Parker, and Romo at Washington State Tree Fruit Association meeting in Kennewick, WA.

At the beginning of December 2023, a dedicated team of researchers from Washington State University (WSU) College of Nursing, led by Julie Postma, PhD, RN, with support from Sheila Hurst, PhD, RN-CNE, PhD candidate Molly Parker, and undergraduate honors student Juliana Romo, undertook a crucial initiative in the heart of Washington’s agricultural community. Their mission was to survey agricultural supervisors attending the Washington State Tree Fruit Association meeting in Kennewick, WA, focusing on the impact of wildfire smoke on occupational health in the agricultural industry.

This endeavor was a component of a larger project supported by a grant titled “Smoke Hazards in the Agricultural Workplace: A bilingual survey for agricultural employers.” The grant, funded by the UW Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, seeks to delve into agricultural supervisors’ perspectives regarding air quality monitoring, health implications, and hazard communication strategies related to wildfire smoke exposure at work.

The study builds on the foundation of a recently accepted publication authored by Molly Parker, Mary Jo Ybarra-Vega, and Julie Postma, titled “Agricultural worker perspectives on climate hazards and risk reduction strategies” in the Journal of Agromedicine (accepted on 11/29/23 and online ahead of print December 28, 2023). Workers stressed the important role that supervisors play in maintaining a safe work environment which led to the survey study.

What makes this initiative remarkable is the collaboration of a diverse and dedicated team. Juliana Romo, a Yakima Valley resident whose father currently works in the agricultural industry, naturally connected with the participants, establishing immediate rapport. All three members of the team, Dr. Hurst, Parker, and Romo, share proficiency in Spanish, a crucial factor in engaging with the Spanish-speaking agricultural supervisors.

Photos from the meeting provide a visual narrative of the research in action, capturing the essence of the team’s efforts. These images reflect moments of collaboration, engagement, and the dedication that went into gathering valuable data from a challenging yet vital demographic.

Hurst’s experience in the Peace Corps and Parker’s experience working in agricultural communities in California added valuable insight and understanding to the team. Together, they managed to collect over 100 surveys, with more than half completed by Spanish-speaking agricultural supervisors. This success is particularly noteworthy given the inherent challenges in reaching and engaging with this population.

This initiative serves as a testament to the power of team science. By bringing together individuals with diverse backgrounds, skills, and perspectives, the team successfully navigated the complexities of studying the impact of wildfire smoke on the agricultural industry. The accomplishment not only furthers our understanding of occupational health challenges but also highlights the importance of inclusive and collaborative research practices.

Julie Postma, PhD, RN, Professor and the Associate Dean for Research expressed her gratitude for the hard work and collaborative spirit of the team. She emphasized that the success of this project demonstrates what can be achieved through teamwork and the unique contributions each team member brings to the research process.

As we celebrate the achievements of this dedicated team from Washington State University, it becomes evident that research endeavors like these are crucial for advancing our understanding of occupational health challenges and potential solutions. The commitment, expertise, and collaborative spirit exhibited by Dr. Sheila Hurst, Molly Parker, and Juliana Romo serve as an inspiring example of how diverse perspectives and skills can come together to address complex issues, making a significant impact on both local communities and the broader field of research.