In a house built by and for tobacco, hundreds of Johnston County seasonal workers spent Tuesday in workshops designed to help them keep one another alive while out in the fields this summer and fall.
Meeting in a giant tobacco warehouse nestled next to Interstate 95, the workshops were organized by GAP Connections, a tobacco industry education and training group. Workers cycled through eight training stations offering lessons in CPR, first-aid, pesticide safety, equipment safety and how to avoid green tobacco sickness, a nicotine poisoning that occurs when workers overexpose their skin the the juice of still green leaves. According to the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program, a worker in a tobacco field can absorb as much nicotine in a day as smoking nearly two packs of cigarettes.
Amy Rochkes led the sessions, saying this is the second year GAP has done the training in North Carolina.
“Any work on a farm can be dangerous,” she said. “A trained worker is a safe and productive worker... Anyone is vulnerable to accident or death. We’re trying to train workers before they go in the fields and start working.”
The sessions were free for growers and workers and were taught in Spanish and English. Most were foreign born farm workers from Mexico or Latin America in Johnston County on H2A visas for temporary and seasonal work. In two sessions, nearly 600 workers went through the training.
Johnston County Emergency Services led a CPR training class, using about a dozen dummies and asking the workers to do chest compressions for one minute. Josh Holloman, EMS chief, said the county wanted to get involved simply for the large number of people it would get to train.
“The opportunity to train 600 people really got us excited,” Holloman said. “Everyone should be trained in CPR. Tell your neighbor to learn CPR, because the life you save may be your own. I like to hang out with people who know CPR.”
Holloman said the county has responded to cardiac arrest calls out in Johnston fields, but with thousands of acres of farmland, victims are often in remote corners. When a heart stops beating, Holloman said seconds can make all the difference. CPR is that difference, he said.
“The sooner you do CPR, as soon as someone collapses, the chances of survival triples,” Holloman said. “If someone can do that compression, they’re essentially keeping that blood pumping. That’s going to be good enough until fire and EMS get there. It’s not going to prolong them for hours and hours, but if they can do it in the minutes preceding fire and EMS arriving on the scene, that’s what’s going to keep that person going. They may be unconscious and not be breathing, but that’s okay. As long as they keep the blood flowing, that’s what gives us a chance.”
Holloman said the profile of person who suffers a cardiac arrest has changed somewhat in the last few decades. He said it used to be an affliction generally associated with the elderly, but that it seems anyone can be a victim.
“Now we see 30 year olds, 20 year olds,” Holloman said. “It’s no longer seen as an older type problem. But we know there are some risk factors: heart disease, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, smoking obesity and heredity can indicate someone may be more vulnerable. Typically those things lead to a heart attack which can cause cardiac arrest.”
The majority of those in the training sessions were foreign born workers, but some local growers made up one of the eight groups in each session. Benson tobacco farmer Gary Adams said he brought 10 workers to the training, saying it beat what they did in the past.
“We usually show a video and they may get it and they may not, but here I think they’ve got it,” Adams said. “It lets them know that we are interested in theire welfare and health. I think it’s been a good thing.”
Adams said they’re been no major accidents on the 800 acres he farms, but that he thought the training was important, particularity about the nicotine poisoning and heat stress.
“We’ve had a good record, but we take breaks, about 15 minutes every couple hours when it’s hot,” Adams said.
Beyond the training, tables were set up offering diabetes and blood pressure screenings and information about how to get in contact with the Mexican Consulate in Raleigh.
Steve Davis is farmworker services director for Greene County Health Care, which he said offers on-site health clinics in migrant worker camps in a number of eastern North Carolina counties.
“There are occupational risks,” Davis said. “They’re here to make money and we’re trying to keep them as healthy as possible so they don’t have to miss work.”
A table representing the Mexican Consulate offered a hotline for dealing with travel and documentation issues as well as legal assistance. An official said that the biggest concern recently has been deportations for previous misdemeanors, which she said has increased so far this year.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4577; @jdrewjackson