UTHCT awarded grant to train occupational medicine residents to deal with agricultural and rural occupational health issues

Monday, October 1, 2007

A rustic rural setting of farms, ranches, and small agricultural businesses and industries may not seem a likely setting for occupational-related health and safety issues. In this instance, however, appearances really are deceiving.

“Agriculture is one of the most hazardous of industries. In an average year, more than 500 workers employed in U.S. production agriculture die, with 20 percent of those deaths occurring from tractor overturns,” said Jeffrey Levin, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Occupational Health Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.

“Agricultural workers suffer increased rates of respiratory diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin disorders, certain cancers, chemical toxicity – including from pesticides – heat-related illness, and infections. Rural workers in similar work environments, such as the construction trades, have comparable experiences,” Dr. Levin said.

And many occupational medicine physicians have little experience with agricultural-related health issues, such as the risk factors that contribute to illness, disability, and death in rural settings, Dr. Levin said.

A three-year, $444,000 grant to UTHSCT from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to train occupational medicine residents in agricultural and rural occupational health issues is designed to fill that gap in knowledge and experience.

“Rural communities often lack the infrastructure to develop and sustain a preventive approach to occupational disease and injury for specific work sectors such as agriculture. This grant is designed to provide innovative training for occupational medicine residents,” said Dr. Levin, principal investigator of the recently awarded grant and director of UTHSCT’s Occupational Medicine Residency Program.

“There are not enough health professionals in the field of occupational safety and health. A report in 2000 by the Institute of Medicine indicated a need for additional training to increase the number of professionals skilled in occupational safety and health,” he said.

“We want to reach more than just our own residents in rural occupational safety and health. So residents in occupational medicine residency programs at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the University of Kentucky College of Medicine will also be trained,” Dr. Levin said.

“This grant specifically addresses agricultural health and safety issues in rural areas. And this training meets competencies required by the agency that accredits occupational medicine residency programs,” he added.

The goals of the grant are to:

  • increase the number of qualified physicians with the skills needed to address occupational health concerns in non-urban areas;
  • expand the number of occupational medicine residency graduates in Texas with training in agricultural occupational health;
  • increase training opportunities in agricultural occupational health in other U.S. public health regions;
  • improve residents’ understanding of responsible and culturally appropriate research activities; and
  • nurture partnerships in interdisciplinary clinical experience between occupational medicine residency programs and community or migrant worker health centers through collaboration with the National Center for Farmworker Health.

This is a nationally competitive grant awarded by NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the first training project grant of its kind for the Health Center.

Partners include The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the National Center for Farmworker Health based in Buda, Texas.

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