The Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy (IIPHRP) is pleased to announce the newest members of its Policy Fellow Program. The 2017-2018 Policy Fellows are Paul Gilbert, UI assistant professor of community and behavioral health, and Brandi Janssen, UI clinical assistant professor of occupational and environmental health.
The year-long Policy Fellow Program creates opportunities for primary faculty to enhance their skills for translating public health research into practice and policy. Each Policy Fellow develops and implements an “action learning project” focused on a critical public health topic. The project is intended to be completed within a one-year timeline and requires at least one stakeholder meeting and a product, such as a policy brief, proposed legislative language, or an implementation guide to disseminate at the end of the Fellowship.
“The scope of each project can be very diverse,” says Vickie Miene, interim director of the IIPHRP, based in the University of Iowa College of Public Health. “For example, one project may be to develop a position paper on a specific public health issue, while another project may be to implement legislative language that impacts workforce development.”
IIPHRP selects Policy Fellows from a competitive application process. The program provides funds for Fellows to attend specialized conferences or for other approved activities that enhance their learning. In addition, the program supports visits from policy experts, industry leaders, and other faculty who provide education and expertise to the program.
Reducing underage drinking
Gilbert’s project is looking at ways to reduce underage drinking, specifically through social host liability laws. Social host liability holds that adults who provide alcohol to minors, or allow minors to consume alcohol on their property, should be accountable for those violations of the minimum legal drinking age. In 2014, the Iowa state code was amended to enact a statewide social host liability law, covering all jurisdictions.
As a first step, Gilbert will assess variation in enforcement of Iowa’s recent social host liability law. He will review county-level enforcement records and interview stakeholders to understand when and how the law is enforced, including barriers to enforcement. As a second step, Gilbert will draw on the local knowledge and scientific literature to make recommendations to strengthen Iowa’s adolescent alcohol prevention policy.
An issue brief outlining the problem of adolescent drinking and describing the social host liability law is forthcoming. The final policy recommendations will be shared at a public summit in summer 2018.
Improving safe farm practices
Janssen’s project will focus on partnering with agricultural lenders to improve farm safety in Iowa. Injuries among farmers and agricultural workers remain higher than nearly every other industry in the United States. In most years in Iowa, agriculture is responsible for more occupational fatalities than any other industry.
These high injury and fatality rates are partially a result of the nature of agricultural work, in which farmers and their employees are regularly exposed to multiple hazards on the job (equipment, livestock, chemicals, and environmental hazards such as extreme heat and cold). In addition, because most farms employ fewer than 10 non-related workers, there are very few enforceable policies that require safety protocols or enact penalties for unsafe working conditions.
Many other industries, including manufacturers, grain co-ops, and financial lenders, rely on a safe and healthy farm workforce. In particular, agricultural lenders, who also aim to reduce risk, may be good partners in farm safety promotion and policy. Recognizing that safe farms benefit both farmers and lenders, whose investments are better protected, this project aims to identify strategies for agricultural lenders to encourage and improve safe farm practices in Iowa.
More information about the Policy Fellow Program can be found at https://www.public-health.uiowa.edu/iiphrp/.
The number of suicides among farmers and farmworkers in the United States has remained stubbornly high since the end of the 1980s farm crisis, much higher than workers in many other industries, according to a new study from the University of Iowa.
The study examined suicides and homicides among farmers and agricultural workers across the country from 1992 to 2010 and found 230 farmers committed suicide during that time, an annual suicide rate that ranged from 0.36 per 100,000 farmers to 0.95 per 100,000. The rate is well above that of workers in all other occupations, which never exceeded 0.19 per 100,000 during the same time period.
The 1992 to 2010 rate is not as high as the 1980s, when more than 1,000 farmers took their own lives because they were losing their farms to foreclosure, but study co-author Corinne Peek-Asa, professor of occupational and environmental health in the UI College of Public Health, says the new numbers still are excessive.
“Occupational factors such as poor access to quality health care, isolation, and financial stress interact with life factors to continue to place farmers at a disproportionately high risk for suicide,” she says.
The survey found farmers in the West were more likely to commit suicide, at 43 percent of total farmer suicides, followed by the Midwest (37 percent), South (13 percent), and Northeast (6 percent).
As in the 1980s, financial issues continue to cause some suicides, especially during economic crises or periods of extreme weather, Peek-Asa says. But farmers face an array of other stresses that put them at high risk for suicide: physical isolation from a social network, leading to loneliness; physical pain from the arduous work of farming; and lack of available health care resources in rural areas, especially mental health care. She says other research also suggests that exposure to chemical insecticides causes depression in some people.
In addition, Peek-Asa says, farm culture dictates that farmers who may have physical or psychological needs should just suck it up and go about their work.
Finally, farmers have access to lethal means because many of them own weapons. The rifle they use to chase off coyotes can easily be turned on themselves.
Peek-Asa says farmers are different from workers in most other fields in that their work is a significant part of their identity, not just a job. When the farm faces difficulties, many see it as a sign of personal failure.
“They struggle with their ability to carve out the role they see for themselves as farmers. They can’t take care of their family; they feel like they have fewer and fewer options and can’t dig themselves out,” Peek-Asa says. “Eventually, suicide becomes an option.”
Peek-Asa says policy solutions would include include improving rural economies, increasing social networks in rural areas, and improving access to health care and mental health services in rural areas.
Beyond that, she says improving the quality of life in rural communities also is important, pointing to UI programs that contribute to that, such as the mobile museum or Hancher’s summer art outreach program that brings arts and cultural opportunities to towns and cities across Iowa.
The study, “Trends and Characteristics of Occupational Suicide in Farmers and Agriculture Workers,” was published in the Journal of Rural Health. It was co-authored by Kelley Donham, UI professor emeritus in the College of Public Health; Marizen Ramirez of the University of Minnesota and visiting associate professor in the UI College of Public Health; and Wendy Ringgenberg of Des Moines University.
(This story originally appeared in Iowa Now)
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