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Milk of Human Kindness: Empowering Dairy Workers with Yurany Ninco Sanchez

Yurany Ninco Sanchez
They are doing all these things without understanding the effects that they have on their health.
Milk of Human Kindness: Empowering Dairy Workers with Yurany Ninco Sanchez

Dairy workers can get left out.  They aren’t migratory or seasonal agricultural workers, as they work on the dairy farm, year-round. This precludes access to migrant-specific health services, like mobile units that visit migrant camps and certain health centers that focus on migrants.  Dairy workers are not considered agricultural workers, and consequently don’t fall under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Worker Protection Standard.   It’s also a relatively new field for immigrants, as dairy farms were traditionally a family affair up until the millennium, when farmers began using industrial techniques to expand production, consequently needing a workforce outside of the family.  And worker safety training for this new workforce has lagged.  But some people are addressing this left-behind segment of workers -- it’s estimated that about 50,000 immigrants work in the US dairy industry -- to train them in workplace safety and on their rights as workers. Yurany Ninco Sanchez, the Community Outreach Trainer for the National Farm Medicine Center, has been visiting dairy operations in Wisconsin and Minnesota to determine the most effective methods of training -- and to assure immigrant workers have the training they need to keep themselves safe. Her work is a part of Seguridad en Las Lecherias, a five-year project on dairy worker safety, funded by a grant from the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH).

“[Dairy workers are] working with these big animals, and they don’t know how they move, how they react…and that you have to be very careful. They’re using machinery when a lot of these people didn’t [ever] drive before. They are handling chemicals… and they’re not aware of the risks to their health,” Ninco Sanchez listed. “They are doing all these things without understanding the effects that they have on their health.”

When Ninco Sanchez started working with immigrant workers on dairy farms in 2014, she noted a few differences in the population versus the migrant farmworker population she had previous worked with: These dairy workers worked year-round, for an average of 57 hours a week.  They held onto their job for many years. In fact, for most of the immigrant workers, she said, this was their first and only job in the US.  But, despite the big difference in the steadiness of work, many of the issues pertinent to migrant workers were evident in the dairy workers.

“One of the big issues is the language,” said Ninco Sanchez. A Wisconsin Cooperative Extension survey found that 80 percent of immigrant dairy workers spoke no or extremely limited English. “There are a lot of these workers who don’t know how to read,” even in Spanish, making training difficult. “You pair that with the legal status” -- that same survey found 50 percent of respondents were undocumented -- “they are afraid, but they have to work. Even if they know the working conditions are not great, they just accommodate to it.”

IMMIGRATING TO THE US

Ninco Sanchez herself understands the difficulty of the language component. Born in Colombia, she attended the nursing program in her home country entirely in Spanish, at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia. When she arrived in the US as a registered nurse in 2005 from Colombia, she didn’t yet speak English.  Now, after several years of living and working in the US, she is fluent in both English and Spanish.

Ninco Sanchez’s current project with dairy workers was a big shift from her previous five years of work with a migrant health center in Wisconsin, where she was the coordinator for a mobile clinic.  The clinic served mostly migrant workers from the local canneries, where workers pack green beans, potatoes, and carrots for a few months of the year. She started at the clinic as a part-time interpreter while studying for a bachelor’s degree in health care administration with the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.

Toward the end of her studies, she moved into the coordinator position.  After graduating with a bachelor's of science in health care administration, she stayed on as coordinator, transitioning to full-time. There, Ninco Sanchez first discovered the need for not just medicine and health services, but for empowerment.

“We were in the process of empowering them -- making sure they know what kind of services they can access,” and how to improve their health, year-round -- not just receive medications when they’re sick.  Continuity of care was frustrating for Ninco Sanchez, as many patients received three months of care with her clinic in Wisconsin, but no other care for the other nine months of the year, when most of her patients returned to Texas or Mexico.  She used MCN’s Health Network to encourage continuity. “They would run out of medications, and they didn’t have a doctor,” but working with Health Network helped agricultural workers access care when they left Wisconsin. 

Now, Ninco Sanchez is continuing her work of empowerment in the dairy world. Through Seguridad en las Lecherías, Ninco Sanchez and her partners have already created and refined a curriculum that includes: Introduction to Hazards; Animal Handling; Machinery and Equipment; Workers’ Rights and Responsibilities; and Chemical Safety and Confined Spaces. The work also teaches on the use of the promotor model, wherein several dairy worker immigrants are designated and trained to recognize and report hazards, and to support fellow immigrant workers.  MCN’s Amy Liebman, the Director of Environmental and Occupational Health, is Co-Principal Investigator of the grant, and much of the project’s curricula are available on MCN’s website. 

Sanchez visits the farms -- they are working with almost 60 as of this writing -- to provide the training and curriculum.  She does pre-training and post-training evaluation to determine the efficacy of the program. She also interfaces with the dairy farm owners.

“It’s very important to have the employer involved,” she said. “The farmer is the one that can change things. Getting their attention is one of the things that I’m very excited about.”  She recalls a turning point in one employer’s perspective, one of many family farmers which, with modernization, has relied on immigrant workers in recent years to keep up with the growth of the farm.  “She said, ‘We’re very good with animals, and… we’re doing very good with the facilities to take care of the animals – but we kind of forgot about people. Now we’re behind on that.’”

She is working to diminish the cultural barriers between workers and farm owners as well. She thrives as being that “point of connection in the middle,” she said, adding, “I understand the culture, and I feel the limitations,” of the workers, “and I’m able to communicate in English so [I] can get that message across, to facilitate things, to be able to give [the workers] tools, and empower them.”

Ninco Sanchez loves that her work keeps her learning.  She is proud that the missions of the organizations that she has worked for are compatible with her own personal beliefs. As long as such organizations exist, aiming “to assure people to have better life conditions,” she said, “then I’ll be there.”

30 CLINICIANS MAKING A DIFFERENCE is a project celebrating Migrant Clinicians Network's 30th anniversary through the life stories of 30 clinicians making a difference in migrant health. Learn more about Migrant Clinicians Network.

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