Professional Dreams May Change, but the Overall Goal is Reached

IMG_1325Jose Gutierrez has made an incredibly positive impact at WCAHS since he first started as a student worker in 2010. Below he reflects on his various experiences at WCAHS before leaving for a new job as coordinator of Pasos Saludables – a farmworker wellness program – at Reiter Affiliated Companies, one of the world’s largest berry growers. Jose will be missed, but we are excited to see him continue his path in occupational health and safety!

How did you come to WCAHS?

I started as a student assistant in the office and later participated in some education and outreach activities. After I completed my B.S., I was hired as a Community Health Program Representative for WCAHS with a heat illness research project. My new duties included working with the databases and coordinating the team activities at the field during the summer. [Notes: Read and see pictures of the student research team in an earlier blog.]

Did your career goals change while at WCAHS?

Yes, I started out wanting to be a physician and majored in Biopsychology and Spanish. When I was introduced to the “research world” I loved it; rather than fix a health problem, I now want to work to prevent the health problem in the first place by learning the root cause of the issues. Only then can effective preventive measures, such as better education models, improved regulations, etc., be made.

What was one of the biggest lessons you learned while at WCAHS?

How important it is to establish trust with the farmer and farmworkers when asking them to participate in a study. Establishing personal connections is crucial. The farmworkers were incredibly thankful that we were concerned about their welfare, and this increased their willingness to participate and learn about the signs of heat illness.

What inspires you about your work?

Definitely giving back to my community and helping them learn how to make positive, healthy changes. [Note: Jose comes from a Central Valley farmworker family and picked in the orchards as a teen. Read about Jose’s early life in the Summer 2011 WCAHS newsletter.]

What will you do at your new job?

I will be managing a wellness program for farmworkers. My new job will still be linked to UC Davis.  My new employer, Reiter Affiliated Companies, is hosting a study to test a comprehensive approach to improve cardiovascular health among Latino farmworkers. I will coordinate a team of health educators and research assistants, as well as maintain communication with the UC Davis based research team.

Leaving WCAHS is hard, both professionally and personally, because it is such a great place to work, but I will use the skills/knowledge I learned to continue striving to improve the quality of life of farmworkers.



Alifia Merchant: Determining Pesticide Exposure with Antibodies and 96 Tiny Wells

Alifia croppedBy Alifia Merchant

Agriculture and landscape workers apply pesticides as part of their work. Pesticides benefit us by protecting plants from harmful insects, but they can be poisonous if used carelessly.

Workers need to know how to safely use pesticides, such as by wearing gloves and long pants and washing their hands immediately afterwards. In California, many agriculture and landscape workers have a limited understanding of English and may not be able to read the instructions on how to apply pesticides safely. On the other hand, they may not have formal training through their employment, especially if their business is freelance. Even with trained workers, mistakes can be made.

My goal as a graduate student in the Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry Graduate Group at UC Davis is to help better protect agriculture and landscape workers from harmful pesticide exposure. I am working with Drs. Debbie Bennett and Bruce Hammock, Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS) investigators, to develop quick and easy methods to determine if a worker has been exposed to pesticides.

Alifia blog photo copyI will interview agriculture and landscape workers to gain information about their jobs and possible pesticide exposure. Then, I will collect urine samples on days that they have sprayed or otherwise been exposed to pesticides.

Why am I collecting urine? When chemicals enter the body they can be metabolized, meaning that their chemical structure changes. After metabolism, the chemical can leave the body through urine. Different chemicals remain in the body for varying amounts of time, but the pesticides that I am studying are present in urine within several hours after exposure.

I will determine pesticide exposure using a method called enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay or ELISA for short. Each ELISA test involves a plate with 96 tiny wells with specific antibodies added to the wells. Each antibody detects a specific pesticide.

Urine will be added to the wells. If a well contains urine with pesticiELISAde metabolites, the well turns light yellow or clear. If the urine does not contain pesticide metabolites, the well turns a bright yellow color. Thus, the color of the well allows us to know if a person has been exposed to a pesticide and to what degree.

In the future, we see using the ELISA to quickly know if someone has been unsafely exposed to a pesticide and needs medical help. It could also be used to train workers; if the ELISA shows that a worker was unsafely exposed to pesticides after applying them, the worker would be informed about their results and receive recommendations about how to better protect themselves while doing their job.

For information on how to safely use pesticides at work and home, check out The Pesticide Safety Project website and videos in both English and Spanish, produced by WCAHS in collaboration with the California Poison Control System, and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.


From Scorpions to Asthma: An interview with Alex Castañeda, WCAHS Seed Grant Award Winner

DSCN0277Alex Castañeda is a 4th year UC Davis graduate student. He was awarded a 2013-2014 WCAHS Seed Grant to help him study air pollution and asthma. Below, he talks about what led him to love science and work to improve agricultural health and safety.

Favorite high school subject: “Biology. My high school biology teacher was passionate about making students learn the material, not just memorize it.”

Family: “My parents are originally from Mexico. They encouraged me to go to college and are proud of me. They both were well educated in Mexico – my dad as an electrical technician and my mom as a nurse. While my mom became a full time homemaker with 3 kids in the U.S., she shared her love of science with me and the importance of helping people.”

Scorpions: “After getting a bachelor’s degree at UC Irvine, I went to CSU Bakersfield for a master’s degree. My project was to understand how scorpions are affected by their environment and human activity. Things like building roads and homes can isolate scorpions from each other and their populations can disappear. Depending on your view, this could be good or bad!”

Air Pollution and Asthma: “While working on the scorpions project, I learned about molecular biology and how the environment can really affect us. I decided to use the same scientific techniques to study lung disease at UC Davis. The WCAHS Seed Grant has helped me study how air pollution, especially the tiny particulate matter in the air, causes asthma.”

“Asthma is a major health problem in many agricultural areas of California, especially near Fresno and Bakersfield. We want to understand why this happening and if there are certain parts of air pollution that are worse than others. To do this, we collaborate with Dr. Keith Bein, an air quality researcher. He uses sophisticated equipment to capture air samples and separate out the different components for testing. Many of the different components are pollutants from regular activities, like driving and home cooking, and some agricultural practices, like pesticide application and plowing.”

“Our goal is to better protect people, especially those working in dusty agricultural environments, by understanding exactly which components pose the greatest risk to health. We have found that mice exposed to certain types of particulate matter are more likely to get asthma when they are exposed to something allergic.”

Advice to young students: “Volunteer. Doing activities through my church (soup kitchen) and high school student council (organizing events) opened my eyes to what I liked best – helping people. It feels great to know that what I am doing in the lab could be used to improve the health of people.”

Future plans: “I will graduate next year and plan to do an academic post-doc in a lab looking at lung disease. Staying in California would be great, but I’m open to other possibilities.”

WCAHS Seed Grants support graduate student education and training, assist in connecting students to agricultural health and safety careers, and are open to student researchers in the WCAHS four-state region: AZ, CA, HI, and NV.

For more information, contact WCAHS Manager, Cindy Valencia,


2014 Strategic Planning Retreat Success

The Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS) successfully hosted its 2014 Strategic Planning Retreat last week at UC Davis. It was a chance to meet and greet old friends and colleagues as well as make new connections.

Teresa Andrews, WCAHS Outreach Specialist, and Dr. Julie Rainwater, WCAHS Evaluation Director, reported that WCAHS has made great strides with outreach, including working with the other 9 NIOSH funded Ag Centers to create a YouTube video channel. More than 12,000 people have visited the channel. Teresa DSCN0170The channel is an effective way to reach thousands of people with effective safety and health information.

Teresa shows the variety of Ag Center YouTube videos available.

Part of the retreat’s purpose was to learn about potential new areas of research. This year, the two topics were discussed: 1) Valley Fever and Agriculture, and 2) Indigenous Farm Workers.

Dr. Antje Lauer, from CSU Bakerfield, and Gail Sondermeyer and Dr. Jason Wilken, from the CA Department of Public Health, explained that the incidence of Valley Fever disease has dramatically increased in the western US, yet little is known about the ecology of the fungus that causes Valley Fever or whether certain occupations are at increased risk for contracting the disease.

Antje DSCN0165R: Dr. Lauer, soil and Valley Fever specialist.

Interpreters from Natividad Medical Foundation’s Indigenous Interpreting+ service explained that 50% of people migrating now from Mexico speak indigenous languages, such as Mixteco, Zapoteco and Triqui. Many live in California, especially in the Salinas Valley. Often  speaking little to no Spanish, they have difficulty on the job and understanding basic social services like medicine.


(L to R): WCAHS Director Marc Schenker, Indigenous Interpreting+ Director Victor Sosa, Natividad Medical Foundation President Linda Ford, Indigenous Interpreters Sergio Martinez and Angelica Isidro.

Later in the day, the participants divided into two groups to further discuss the two topics and come up with questions and ideas for the WCAHS.

VF group DSCN0237

Valley Fever breakout group with (facing L to R) Gail Sondermeyer, Dr. Jason Wilken, and Dr. Antje Lauer.


Right: Paul Verke (center), in charge of outreach and public engagement for the CA Department of Pesticide Regulation speaks with Indigenous Interpreter+ professionals while Victor Sosa, Director of Indigenous Interpreter+ and Victor Duraj, UC Davis Biological & Agricultural Engineering, listen in.

WCAHS thanks all those who participated in the meeting and made it a success!


Coming soon! National Farm Safety and Health Week 2014

PrintSeptember 21-27 is National Farm Safety Week. This year’s theme is “Safety Counts: Protecting What Matters.” The theme underscores the importance of working together to build a safer and healthier agricultural work place. California produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. At the heart of this industry are the farmers and agricultural workers, whose labor provides us with an abundant food supply. However, they, and often their families, are exposed to a unique, sometimes hazardous workplace that can affect health at all age levels.

During National Farm Safety Week, the 10 Agricultural Centers funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Healt2014 Farm Safety Ad-Spanishh salute those working in agriculture. You can watch online safety videos through a special YouTube channel. These safety videos are designed for producers, extension agents, and farm families. Safety Counts: Protect What Matters, go to or visit the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety website at, which is housed at the University of California, Davis.


Life of a WCAHS Student Researcher: Heat Illness Study

By Eddie Delgadillo Alfaro

Note: Eddie and his co-workers have been working throughout the summer season on CA farms to better understand how to prevent heat illness associated with farm work. Data collected includes the internal temperature of participants as they work, how much water they drink, and on-site weather conditions.

Morning sunrise copyWe usually work Monday-Thursday. On Monday, we drive down from the Ag Center to whatever farm we will be working with for that week. Mondays are not as intense as the rest of the days since all we do is recruit participants for that week. However, beginning on Tuesday, we wake up before dawn to be at the farm 30 minutes before the workers arrive. So, we basically have to put up with beautiful sunrises each day we work.

Set-up copyWe usually set up in an open space or in a dirt road adjacent to the farm. Sometimes, we’re lucky and the farmer will let us use their office for the pre- and post-shifts. Jose, Melissa, and Carlos set up at the farm and wait for the first participants to show up.

Pre-shift copy


Javier, Maria, and Leslie patiently wait inside one of the vans after finishing the pre-shift session.  During this time, others may review blood exam results or set up the weather equipment.     

Weather eq copy



Alondra, Javier, Melissa, Maria, Carlos, and Leslie set up the weather equipment. After it is set up, we all get breakfast, and the 8 crew split up into AM and PM shifts.

Walmart copy


Alondra, Jose, Javier, Carlos, and Leslie shopping for supplies at Walmart for water and Gatorade. These supplies are for ourselves and offered to participants during post-shift.

Van copy



The majority of our workday consists of observing the participants. We take notes on their activities and how many times they drink fluids. Leslie is observing from one of our vans. I prefer sitting outside under shade, but when there is no shade and it is too hot, we watch from the vans.

sunflower copy

Sometimes  participants are not visible from the van and move around, so we have to follow them wherever they go to get our observations. Alondra and Maria walk down the edge of a sunflower field at a farm in Yolo County.

Carlos copy



During the post-shift, we basically do everything that we did in the morning except the equipment is removed and the post-shift questionnaire is longer. Carlos reviews the participant folder making sure everything is checked off and the participant may receive their compensation.

Road sign copy


To me, this sign summarizes the need for the California Heat Illness Prevention study and its significance. California is the 8th largest economy in the world, and agriculture is by far the largest industry in California. All too often, farmworkers are taken for granted and pushed aside. They are labeled as “aliens” in a state that is 7.5% composed of illegal immigrants. It’s about time someone took responsibility for their “losses or injuries”.

Supervisors copy


Our supervisors, Alondra and Jose, organize participant recruitment and keep us on our toes!

computer copy



The work never ends for Jose! At the hotel room, Javier and Jose download and review the data to make sure there are no problems with the recording equipment.

The level of work and hours varies for each farm. I’ve sometimes had to work 16 hour days, most commonly on the last day of the week when we drive back to Davis after working all day long. This is great for me since I get to clock in so many hours but can be super tiring! Javier knocks out on his hotel bed after a hard day’s work.

Javier copyswim copyFor Melissa and Leslie, nothing beats a refreshing swim after basking in the hot sun for 10 hours. WCAHS always tries to find a hotel with a pool for us. Sometimes the location of the farm makes that impossible, but when the hotel does have a pool, you can bet we dive right in!

Team copyOur team from Summer 2014: (Top row left to right): Leslie, Maria, Johnny, Javier, Eduardo, and Jose; (Bottom row left to right): Carlos, Melissa, and Alondra

Small Changes Can Make Big Impact with Ladders

LaddersBlogPic-UCAERC-CommPartnersIf you ever had an ergonomic review of your workspace, you know that small changes, such as moving your chair up an inch or tilting your monitor a few degrees, can make a big difference in reducing muscle aches and pains.

The same is true in agriculture where repetitive movement (e.g., going up and down ladders) can become incredibly tiring, potentially leaving a worker open to various types of injury. Staying healthy and strong is especially important for farmworkers who look forward to harvesting multiple crops through the season.

Professor Fadi Fathallah, engineer Victor Duraj, and others at the UC Agricultural Ergonomics Research Center (UC AERC) are continuing their earlier work funded by NIOSH Community Partners for Healthy Farming Intervention that showed some workers who harvest peaches and nectarines prefer a ladder with shorter spacing between steps.

Why might this be? It may go back to the principle of switchbacks. If you’ve ever hiked, you know that it is a lot easier to go up the hill via switchbacks than blazing a trail straight up. You have to take more steps with switchbacks but the vertical height of each step is much less, and, ultimately can be less tiring. You might also find that even though you took longer to get there, by the end of the day you may have walked further or the next day be less tired, or both. The same may be true when climbing a ladder if it has shorter steps.

In current work supported by the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, the UC AERC is using human muscle force modeling software to see why some workers with relatively small differences in size might have a strong preference for a particular spacing. To help match forces with movements the researchers are using motion capture equipment that includes small sensors strapped to many points on a body. These electronics are similar to those used in developing animated movie and video game characters that move in “real” ways. Besides actual and modified orchard ladders, the UC AERC will use their newly developed portable research ladder that allows for precise positioning of each ladder rung as well as overall angle of the ladder, which will help the researchers test software-predicted optimum spacing for each person in the study.

If you are curious to know more or are a grower interested in participating in field trials, please contact Victor Duraj at 530-752-1898,, or via