Jul 28, 2023
What do farmworkers and NFL players have in common?

What do professional football players and farmworkers have in common?

  • They have long seasons, traveling from place to place.
  • They have to spend time away from their family.
  • They frequently deal with aches, pains and injuries as a result of their work.
  • They burn high amounts of calories every day.
  • They are super athletes who can perform under the sun or in the frigid cold.

The most important similarity, however, is that they both need good leadership to make sure that they maintain their health and don’t over-exert themselves.

One might think we can’t compare the two industries. Professional football benefits from ample resources and from money that can pay for trainers and on-call doctors and rest breaks for the players.

In agriculture, where profit margins are thin and labor costs are rising, that same level of resources isn’t available to producers or to farmworkers. But the increasing threat of heat waves, combined with the lessons learned from COVID-19, indicates that we should apply the same lesson: That people are actually more efficient and perform better when given time to rest, recover and receive medical care. Football coaches and agricultural employers have a similar duty: ensuring that the team achieves its goals without risking the lives of players or workers.

Performing in the heat 

Summer football practices are a fond memory for many Americans. The blazing hot gridiron is where hard work is done, a place where we develop both physical and mental toughness. But as tragic deaths of football players of all levels have shown us over the years, there is a difference between a hard practice and a dangerous over-exertion.

The NFL has realized the growing importance for heat-related illness prevention measures for its players. In a webinar recorded in 2021, the NFL’s top four recommended heat illness prevention strategies were:

  • Letting players acclimatize to heat (for 7-14 days)
  • Modifying the length of practice and work-to-rest ratios
  • Encouraging proper hydration
  • Educating players and coaches about heat illness symptoms

The increase in the H-2A program is important because it means there’s a higher chance that workers aren’t acclimatized to the climate that they’re working in.

Agricultural workplaces can benefit from these same prevention strategies.  Two recent trends in American agriculture make the need for heat illness prevention measures important: frequent heat waves, and the increase in the use of the H-2A program. The increase of workers in the H-2A program is important because it means there’s a higher chance that farmworkers in the U.S. aren’t acclimatized to the climate that they’re working in. Imagine a group of H-2A workers coming from a cool mountain town in Mexico to the hot, humid low country of South Carolina. Despite being used to working outside and exerting themselves, their bodies simply aren’t prepared to cool themselves down in radically different temperature and humidity levels.

The NFL stresses these recommendations, especially in the beginning of training camp, when temperatures are high and players are getting reaccustomed to intense workouts.  In football terms, acclimatizing to the heat means not having two-a-day practices at the beginning of training camp, and carefully ramping up the intensity of practices over the first two weeks.  The agricultural equivalent would be having shorter work days when workers first arrive, and gradually increasing workloads over the first two weeks.

Fatigue and overexertion significantly increase the risk of accidents in both domains. By prioritizing rest breaks, employers can mitigate these risks, safeguard the well-being of farmworkers, improve staff morale and reduce workplace accidents.

Low-cost health resources for farmworkers

While providing farmworkers with the same medical attention as NFL players isn’t realistic, there are ways to meet basic medical needs for migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Migrant health centers are community health centers that can provide discounted care to people who work in agriculture. These health centers often have mobile units that can come to worksites or housing sites to provide health screenings, vaccines, and information on accessing medicine. These on-site clinics are easy to execute when employers give their permission and encouragement.  These simple health screenings can make a big difference in farmworkers’ health, and the efficiency of your operation.

Agricultural employers interested in receiving free farmworker health resources can contact the National Center for Farmworker Health’s Call for Health Program.

Matt Solberg
Matt Solberg

—Matt Solberg is the employer engagement coordinator for the National Center for Farmworker Health, a private, not-for-profit corporation dedicated to improving the health status of farmworker families. The NCFH provides information services, training and technical assistance, and a variety of products to community and migrant health centers nationwide, as well as employers, organizations, universities, researchers and individuals involved in farmworker health.


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