CSU Researchers Begin 3-Year Project to Protect Local Dairy Workers From Respiratory Illness

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Colorado State University researchers are investigating ways to protect dairy workers from respiratory disease caused by particles inhaled while working, and will be examining why these workers are at increased risk of asthma, chronic bronchitis and diminished lung function.

Over the course of the three-year project, researchers from the CSU High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety will work in cooperation with dairies in the area. “It’s a partnership with the dairy industry on solutions that will work for them,” said Stephen Reynolds, HICAHS director, in a Jan. 8 release put out by the university. The study has been funded by a $900,000 grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Colorado’s dairy industry has expanded significantly in recent years, growing by approximately 20% between 2007 and 2012. In that year, the state had 131,000 dairy cows producing 3.2 billion pounds of milk, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the dairy industry employed about 3,000 people.

Those numbers are expected to rapidly rise in the next few years due to a new mozzarella processing plant built by Leprino Foods in Greely, CO, which should increase demand for milk in the area.

Methods and Goals
The study will measure respiratory responses to various airborne particles. While some respiratory problems are caused by internal defects or conditions, it is already well known that external irritants are a significant contributor to poor breathing health. Of the 21.8 million asthma sufferers in the U.S., for example, approximately 4.6 million are estimated to be caused by dampness and home mold exposure.

Because of their duties transporting, milking and caring for animals, dairy workers are exposed to far more potentially harmful particles than the average person, including animal feed, dander, dust from fecal matter and cleaning chemicals. Additionally, Reynolds said, many dairy workers are immigrants who are not well-trained in health and safety precautions.

The data collected will be used to design and test a set of best practices that can both ameliorate negative health impacts for workers and reduce long-term costs for the dairies. Updating health and safety measures may have an initial cost, but can reduce expenses associated with employee illness over the years.

“We want to be proactive and support this research because we want to deal with any problems our workers may see in the future,” Juan Velez, executive vice president of farm operations for Aurora Organic Dairy, said. “We believe strongly in employee well-being. So for us it wouldn’t be a problem to invest in some improvements to overall employee health. It’s the right thing to do.”

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