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Beyond Training for Agricultural Workers

By Janet Aird


Training agricultural workers and supervisors involves much more than the training itself, says Guadalupe Sandoval, founder of Sandoval Bilingual Safety Solutions, a consulting and training organization in Sacramento, Calif.


Guadalupe Sandoval at a training session with managers and supervisors. Workers who have been promoted to supervisor find there's a huge difference between being a worker, a supervisor and a leader people will follow, Sandoval says.
Photos courtesy of Guadalupe Sandoval.

Sandoval is also the founder and managing director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, past president of the San Joaquin Human Resource Association and former director of risk management services for USI Insurance Services of Northern California. He is also certified in the field of food safety.

He has consulted for agencies such as the Kellogg Foundation, NIOSH and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. His training sessions range from compliance with state and federal regulations to safety and labor management.

"Many of the workers I train are immigrants to the United States," Sandoval says. "Most work in agriculture, from entry level to supervisory workers who've worked their way up the ladder. Training will raise their awareness, but it doesn't necessarily lead to behavior change. It's a challenge to make sure that whatever training you provide makes sense to the people you're training. It's also critical to train supervisors and managers to enforce the training, clarify expectations and provide positive feedback, including progressive discipline, to effectively influence worker behaviors."

An important consideration when employers hire bilingual trainers is to be aware of the quality of their Spanish, he says. After a recent training session, several workers commented that they appreciated that Sandoval spoke good Spanish. They had been trained by a bilingual trainer before, but they hadn't understood him, a fact they didn't share with their employer. When the employer asked why they hadn't told him, they responded that the training was better than nothing and they didn't want it to stop completely.

This ties in with a number of cultural issues that affect training of farm workers, especially immigrants. Sandoval understands, because he worked as a seasonal farm worker in California's Central Valley alongside his siblings and immigrant parents from his childhood through adolescence.

"My experience as a farm worker gives me a practical understanding of what workers are going through," he says.

For example, laborers who have worked in other countries generally haven't been exposed to the regulatory environment in the U.S.

"They come from an environment where they're a disposable component of the operation. They may never have been exposed to safety training, and for many, it's a very strange concept not just to get the job done, but to get the job done in a way that will protect them. The concept of a 'culture of safety' is foreign to them," Sandoval states.

He tells workers that employers don't want them to become injured or die on the job, and that there are agencies and concrete rules that are enforced to protect them and hold employers accountable. "That's why the employer is paying for them to be trained, and why they need to implement the training," he says.

Another concept that is new to some farmworkers is that they can control the outcome of their life, Sandoval says. "When I do safety training, I point out specific examples of accidents that happened to other people. It's interesting how many people in the room jump to the conclusion that it must have been 'their time.' I say, 'Maybe if he'd been wearing his seat belt or had he not been talking or texting on his cellphone, it might not have been his time.'"

For many Latinos, it's common when they make plans for the future to add, "God willing." This fatalistic concept can influence workers to believe that taking safety measures isn't important.

There's also reluctance on the part of workers to bring up problems for a number of reasons. Undocumented workers don't mention them because they're concerned about their status. Some workers make mistakes because they don't want to admit that they didn't understand the instructions. Others are afraid they'll be blamed for causing a problem, such as breaking a piece of machinery.

"It's a real challenge to remind managers that however many times you say 'thank you' or 'good job,' workers will remember your negative reaction, your body language or the time you yelled at them because of a broken-down piece of equipment. You just blow all your credibility as a concerned and caring supervisor."

Workers often minimize problems to avoid bringing them up. "I've done audits and found equipment damaged, PTO shafts not guarded, low fluid levels on equipment and inoperative seat belts when they were supposedly being inspected on a regular basis," Sandoval says. "The workers will react as if it's OK and not a big deal."

It's OK for them because it's working, he says, but they don't understand that failing to fix it undermines their safety and that one of these problems could eventually cause an injury or a fatal accident. For example, several workers and growers die each year when they bypass-start a piece of equipment that doesn't start properly due to a faulty ignition system that wasn't reported or fixed.


Training will raise workers' awareness, but it doesn't necessarily lead to behavior change, Sandoval says. It's a challenge to make sure that whatever training you provide makes sense to the people you're training.

The vast majority of Cali-fornia's growers and farm labor contractors are complying with the state's heat illness prevention rules. They're providing adequate shade and water for workers and training them to recognize the symptoms of heat illness, and heat-related fatalities are almost a thing of the past. However, even in California's Central Valley, where summer temperatures are commonly above 100 degrees, it's sometimes hard to convince workers that heat illness could happen to them.

"We still get a little machismo out there," he says. "No one wants to admit they don't feel well. Workers want to keep working instead of resting. Also, it's hard for some to report a co-worker's illness and look like a snitch."

He tries to emphasize the importance of letting the supervisor know if they see a co-worker looking dizzy or exhausted. Putting it in the context of family often works. He asks them, "Would you want your brother, mother [or] father getting sick and no one telling a supervisor?"

It can also be difficult to get workers to report problems such as sexual harassment. Sandoval trains supervisors in sexual harassment prevention, and he tells workers to report harassment to a supervisor or office personnel.

"We try to gain some measure of trust with workers that the employer doesn't allow that," he says. "We emphasize that we want them to feel safe and respected."

He trains supervisors to keep workers informed and safe. He also shows them how to communicate their expectations in a positive way, and to express why it's important for workers to watch out for themselves.

"We'd like supervisors to say, 'We're going to be observing and evaluating you. If we find problems, we're going to correct you. We don't want workers who don't care about their health and safety.'"

Workers are much more likely to follow work rules if they're happy with the supervisor and the working conditions, especially when the training runs counter to their beliefs.

For example, Sandoval says, workers are told that they have to wear their seat belt while they're driving a tractor equipped with ROPS, but many of them believe that they're safer not wearing one because they can jump off if the tractor rolls.

That's a dangerous mistake, he says. "Do you know how hard it is to jump off a tractor in the opposite direction that it's rolling?" Each year, approximately 100 tractor operators in the U.S. die in rollover accidents.

Another challenge for agricultural supervisors is to satisfy the needs of bosses and workers, and to earn the respect of the workers.

"It's especially challenging for a lot of supervisors who have been elevated from worker ranks without adequate training," he says. "You find out that being a good worker doesn't mean being a good supervisor. There's a huge difference between being a worker, a supervisor and a leader people will follow. Being a leader means bringing people together to reach operational goals."

Employers should legitimize new supervisors by communicating to the workers the reasons they're now in charge and that the employer supports them. Employers also have to communicate to the new supervisors that although they're in charge, they can't abuse their power. Supervisors have to communicate their expectations and develop the workers. Learning to share power by effective delegation is also critical.

"To complicate the issue, we have the common reality that when you hire a Latino farmworker, you often hire his family, his neighbors, his community back home," Sandoval says. "When that worker becomes a supervisor, he has to adjust and clarify that relationship. The camaraderie they had before is still there outside of work, but family and friends need to support him on the job. He has to remind them, 'When you violate a work rule, I have to treat you the same as the others.' Doing otherwise will lead workers to believe the supervisor is unfair, providing preferential treatment to his family and friends."

Sandoval also conducts workplace audits to ensure that growers are in compliance with state and federal rules. He interviews crews to make sure they understand work rules and feel their supervisors are treating them properly.

"Sometimes employers are pretty surprised by what we find," he says. "Some workers may not be following established safety procedures or using safety equipment. Then it's time to talk to supervisors about why they have allowed this."

He also conducts accident investigations. Employers must report to OSHA when accidents result in a 24-hour hospitalization, amputation or fatality, but employers should conduct their own internal investigation as well to identify the cause and corrective actions.

"The reality is that with most of the accidents we see, there's a human behavior that led to it," Sandoval says. "Back in the old days, before OSHA regulations, you saw a lot more accidents that were totally avoidable. There's been a great deal of improvement, but there's still a long way to go."

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.