Tomas ordaz Matias is one of them.
This is the second year the 21-year-old has been picking fruit in the United States as a guest worker. Just weeks after arriving from Mexico this year, he scratched his eye on the job.
“I was picking in a really bad grove and there was a lot of debris in the tree. Some of the debris got into my eye and I scratched it. The light was hurting me. I couldn’t open my eye. It was burning,” said Matias.
But he couldn’t work the day after he got hurt. And once he was back in the field, the injury slowed him down. For days, Matias picked about four boxes fewer than his normal thirteen. He gets paid $8.10 per box. Matias didn’t report it to the company because he didn’t want to lose anymore days or pay.
Dr. Barrett Ginsberg is an ophthalmologist who has worked in the agricultural town of Immokalee for five years. He says Matias was lucky. The injury could have been much worse.
“You’re constantly moving your head in and out of trees, and close to branches, and using tools, and cutting things – you have chronic exposure to eye injury both minor and major,” said Ginsberg.
These injuries can range from irritation by dust and pesticides to scratches and fungal infections. Ginsberg says citrus season brings a surge of workers to his office.
“A lot of times these patients will come to me with scratches or early infections and it takes time to treat these things.”
Farmworkers are more likely to experience an eye injury at work than any other industry. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports they suffer 1,700 to 3,000 eye injuries per year.
“It’s enough of a problem. Even one injury is one too many,” said Judy Sanchez, spokesperson for Southern Gardens Citrus in Clewiston.
The company grows and harvests more than 3.5 million boxes of oranges each year. Although treating eye injuries is not expensive, Sanchez says they do have an effect on business.
“If you had a large enough number of incidents, you would be spending large periods of time without a certain number of workers,” she said.
Each year, these injuries cost the agricultural industry and workers about 300 million dollars in medical expenses and lost time.
Ophthalmologist Dr. Ginsberg says the risk of eye injuries may be an inherent part of the job, “but I think with more and more preventative measures and protective eyewear this can be greatly reduced in the future.”
—That’s as long as they actually use the eyewear.
“Workers, they don’t use glasses,” said Antonio Tovar, a project coordinator with the Partnership for Citrus Workers Health.
The project is a collaboration between the University of South Florida, the Farmworker Association of Florida, and citrus harvesting companies.
“The main issue is that the glasses fog. They fall. Because they are paid by the amount of oranges they pick, they don’t want to waste time,” said Tovar.
But the Partnership developed a program to get more workers to use protective eyewear.
It determined the pair of glasses most suitable for working in the groves. The project also trained some citrus workers to be ‘health promoters.’ They teach their coworkers about the importance of eye safety and also perform eyewashes if someone gets injured in the grove.
Southern Gardens Citrus adopted the program in 2007. The result?
“For the last four years we have had no ‘lost-time’ injuries due to eye accidents,” said Sachez.
Although the project has shown to be effective, it still can be a hard sell for companies to make the investment.
But there are other efforts to encourage eye safety in the groves, such as the Sweet Shades project from Nova Southeastern University Physician Assistant students.
They distribute information and donated eyewear to citrus workers for free.
“Most clinics here on an individual basis see one or two eye injuries a week,” said Physician Assistant student Stu Paasche. “We’re giving them the ability to work without the risk of injury.”
Tomas ordaz Matias also recently got protective eyewear and eyewash from the Partnership for Citrus Workers Health.
“I wear glasses now,” he said. “It slows you down. It’s still hard for me to get used to, but sometimes you have to wear them.”
Matias says he hopes to return to Mexico at the end of the season in June with a little more money and his sight intact.
Groups Work To Protect Eyes Of Florida Citrus WorkersWritten by Farah Dosani
This time of year an army of workers converge on Florida’s citrus groves. They race through the trees, picking oranges and grapefruit that will make it into people’s morning glass of juice. Workers get paid by the box and don’t want to miss a second.
But their encounters with thorny branches can come at a price to their eyes. Many leave the groves with scratched corneas and other injuries. READ MORE
Tomas ordaz Matias is one of them.