Celebrating 20 Years: The N.C. Agromedicine Institute brings awareness to farmer health and safety

by | Jul 15, 2019

North Carolina is often recognized as a leader in agriculture. When it comes to the health and safety of our farmers, the N.C. Agromedicine Institute has ensured that we are a nationwide model in developing programs that protect and enhance the quality of life for those in agricultural fields.

The North Carolina Agromedicine Institute was made a formal institution by the UNC Board of Governors in 1999. University partners include East Carolina University, North Carolina State University, and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. The institute collaborates with the agricultural community, other universities, businesses, health care organizations, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations to address the health and safety risks of farmers, foresters, fishermen, their families and communities in the state. Led by Dr. Robin Tutor-Marcom, the goal of the institute is to reduce injuries and illnesses by conducting research that leads to practical solutions and developing effective and beneficial approaches that benefit the rural community.

 “When I started with the institute in 2007, we had an awareness problem,” Tutor-Marcom said.  “Honestly, the phone never rang, nobody invited us to their meetings. Safety and health were not part of the conversation the agricultural community was having. We felt like we were the only ones talking about health and safety.”

“Now, I think all of us are making better investments in our health and safety, but we still have a ways to go. The fatality rate of farming, fishing and forestry is eight times greater than all other occupations. The highest is still tractor-related fatalities.  

“Less than one percent of our health-care professionals are trained in agriculture, pesticides and farm-related injury,” Tutor-Marcum added. “In the institute’s next twenty years, I would like to see us create an agromedicine presence in every county.”   

Dr. Robin Tutor-Marcom helping NCDA&CS pesticide inspectors understand the new respirator requirements and sharing outreach materials for the respiratory program that is now included in the Worker Protection Standard.

The institute is one of three state-funded agromedicine programs in the country.  Some of the intervention programs developed include AgriSafe NC, Certified Safe Farm, First on the Scene, Fit to Farm, Grain Safety/Grain Rescue and NC AgrAbility Partnership.

In the last two years, nearly 1,100 respirator fit tests and 750 medical clearances have been provided to farmers in 43 counties.

Sixty people have been trained to provide qualitative fit testing for 42 counties and 42 fit test kits have been provided. With risk-mitigation cost-share ability, the institute has helped farmers save more than $15,500 purchasing respirators and cartridges.

“Dr. Robin Tutor-Marcom has done more to promote the safe use of pesticides and bring respirator safety and education to the forefront of state and federal agency priorities,” said Patrick Jones, deputy director of pesticide programs for the NCDA&CS Structural Pest Control and Pesticides Division. “Her leadership has led to regulatory changes at the federal level, including getting EPA to update its confusing and misleading respirator label language to current standards.

“Growers love her,” Jones added. “They will actually stand in line at the Southern Farm Show to talk to Robin and others at the institute to learn more about soil fumigation, worker safety and proper respirator use.”

Dr. Robin Tutor-Marcom speaking on farmer stress at this year’s Minority Farm Conference at the N.C. State Fairgrounds.

“Farmers are investing more in their health and safety,” Tutor-Marcom said. “The institute is now an active part of the conversation.” Recently, the hot topic in agricultural health has become farmer stress.

“In 2009, I had a farm woman pull me aside and tell me that if we don’t address the mental health of farmers, then none of the other health and safety stuff will matter.  Now, ten years later every day, everywhere I work on the issue of farm stress.”

The institute has conducted 27 events on farm stress with more than 1,400 participants.  They have 13 more events coming up including ten mental health first aid workshops for cooperative extension agents.

“Respirator fit testing was important work and I am proud that we are a nationwide leader,” Tutor-Marcom said. “But that will be a walk in the park compared the need and challenges ahead involving farm stress.”

Respirator fit testing was important work and I am proud that we are a nationwide leader,” Tutor-Marcom said. “But that will be a walk in the park compared the need and challenges ahead involving farm stress.”

The Agromedicine Institute receives funding through grant programs and through the NCDA&CS Pesticides Environmental Trust Fund. Companies registering pesticides in North Carolina must pay an additional $25 or $50 environmental assessment fee for each brand registered. The Agromedicine Institute receives 27.5 percent or greater of these funds annually. In 2018, almost $150,000 in PETF funds went to agromedicine.

For more information on the programs and services offered by the N.C. Agromedicine Institute, visit the website www.ncagromedicine.org.