American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Communication Facts: Special Populations: Migrant Workers in the United States - 2008 Edition

Increased migration is a reality in industrialized countries all over the world, and it has social, political, and economic consequences for migrating groups, as well as for their sending and host societies (1). Farmworkers are low-paid, uninsured employees in an extremely hazardous industry, and they provide an essential service for U.S. society (2). These individuals have a range of responsibilities, from planting, cultivating, grading, and sorting products, to inspecting commodities and facilities. They may work with food crops, animals, or plants (3).


  • Recent research estimates that there are 293 million residents in the US, 36 million of whom are foreign-born and 10.3 million of whom are unauthorized (4-6).
  • The average age of agricultural workers is 29 years, with very few older than 60 years, and the vast majority of these individuals and families live below the poverty line (6).
  • Approximately 80% of migrant and seasonal farm workers are men. Women are more likely to be U.S.-born than men, 34% and 15% respectively (7).

Health Issues

  • Previous medical and public health research shows that migrant farm workers have significantly worse health statistics than other populations. Such statistics are somewhat unreliable, due to the difficulty of studying a largely invisible population. Estimates of the migrant farm laborer population in the US range from 750,000 to 12 million, though most approach 10 million (6, 8).
  • Agricultural work has a high fatality rate, with 21.3 deaths per 100,000 workers per year, compared with the overall worker rate of 3.9 (6, 9).
  • In addition, agricultural workers have increased rates of nonfatal injuries, chronic pain, heart disease, many cancers, and chronic symptoms associated with pesticide exposure (6, 9).
  • Disease and mortality rates among migrant workers exceed those of the general United States population. Information about health and health care is transmitted more commonly by word-of-mouth than through the media. High illiteracy rates, language barriers, and adherence to folk medicine traditions further impede education from reaching this group (10, 11).
  • Incidences of diseases of the ear, nose, and throat have been found to be significantly higher when compared to the general population (12).

Communication Disorders

  • According to one study, More than half the subjects had some degree of hearing loss at audiometric frequencies between 500 and 6,000 Hz. Hispanic farm workers were more likely than their English- speaking counterparts to complain of difficulty hearing or understanding speech, suggesting that language barriers could worsen the impact of hearing loss. Occupational exposures to noise from tractors and other machinery as well as pesticides were frequently reported, while use of hearing protection was rare (13).
  • Occupational exposures to organic dusts, gases, and chemicals result in farmers' increased risk of respiratory health problems. Coughs, wheezing, phlegm in the chest, and breathlessness are significantly associated with pulmonary function results (14).
  • There is a significantly elevated risk for lip cancer development within the farm worker population. In addition to sunlight exposure, factors such as viral infection or reduced immunity may play a role in the cancer's source (15).
  • Noise is one of the most important physical factors that occur in an agricultural working environment. Noise-related hearing impairment is the third most common occupational impairment recognized in agriculture (16, 17).


  1. Ahonen, E.Q., Benavides, F.G., & Benach, J. (2007, June). Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, & Health, 33 (2):96-104.
  2. Arcury, T.A., & Quandt, S.A. (2007). Delivery of health services to migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Annual Review of Public Health, 28:345-63.
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. (2008). Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-2009. <Accessed March 23, 2008>.
  4. Census, INS: Data. Migration News. 2002. p. 4. <Accessed March 23, 2008>.
  5. Espenshade, T. (1995). Unauthorized immigration to the United States. American Sociological Review, 21:195-216.
  6. Holmes, S.M. (2006, October). An Ethnographic Study of the Social Context of Migrant Health in the United States. PLoS Medicine, 3 (10): e448.
  7. National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc. (N.D.) Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Demographics Fact Sheet. <Accessed March 23, 2008>.
  8. Rust, G. (1990). Health status of migrant farmworkers: A literature review and commentary. American Journal of Public Health, 80:1213-1217.
  9. Slesinger, D. (1992). Health status and needs of migrant farm workers in the United States: A literature review. The Journal of Rural Health, 8:227-234.
  10. Bureau of Health Professions, Health Resources and Services Administration. Kids into Health Careers: Migrant Health Center Program. <Accessed March 23, 2008>.
  11. Gadon, M., Chierici, R-M., & Rios, P. (2001). Afro-American migrant farmworkers: A culture in isolation. AIDS Care, 13 (6): 789-801.
  12. Dever, G.E.A. (1992). Migrant health status: Profile of a population with complex health issues. Texas Journal of Rural Health, first quarter, 16.
  13. Rabinowitz P.M., Sircar K.D., Tarabar S., Galusha D., & Slade M.D. (2005). Hearing loss in migrant agricultural workers. Journal of Agromedicine, 10 (4):9-17.
  14. Mpofu, D., Lockinger, L., Bidwell, J., & McDuffie, H.H. (2002, November). Evaluation of a respiratory health program for farmers and their families. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 44 (11): 1064-1074.
  15. Khuder, S.A. (1999, April). Etiologic clues to lip cancer from epidemiologic studies on farmers. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 25 (2): 125-130.
  16. Hwang, S.A., et. al. (2001, July). Predictors of hearing loss in New York farmers. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 40 (1): 23-31.
  17. Leszek, S. (2002). Hearing loss among private farmers in the light of current criteria for diminished sense of hearing. Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine, 9, 157-162.

Compiled by Andrea Castrogiovanni * American Speech-Language-Hearing Association * 2200 Research Boulevard, Rockville, MD 20850 *

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