Researchers investigate working conditions in Central America

HOUSTON – Researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health are gathering data on working conditions and health in six Central American countries, in an effort to guide policies that could improve the region’s health.

David Gimeno, Ph.D., and George Delclos, M.D., Ph.D., are investigators for the II Central American Survey of Working Conditions and Health, a $750,000 three-year cooperative agreement grant to UTHealth School of Public Health supported by the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of International Labor Affairs, the Chief Evaluation Office and the Office of Economic and Labor Research. Both Gimeno and Delclos are with the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (SWCOEH) in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences (EHGES) at UTHealth School of Public Health. Gimeno is principal investigator.

The project will survey 9,000 households in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, and aims to update the First Central American Survey of Working Conditions and Health, the researchers’ 2011 benchmark study on work-related conditions in Central America. That study provided a baseline of information about working conditions in the region.

Notably, the investigators discovered that an estimated 74 percent of Central America’s workforce is not covered by social security, a third of the workforce works more than 48 hours a week, and that workers reported frequent exposures to high temperatures, dangerous tools and machinery, and other unsafe work conditions.

But there’s still a lack of comprehensive data on working conditions in the region, which is a major obstacle to developing effective public policies to improve workers’ health, according to the researchers. Surveys are a common strategy used around the world to monitor working conditions, but are just gaining traction in Central and Latin America.

“Central America is one of the fastest growing areas in terms of productivity and employment. It has a relatively young population, economic conditions are improving, and the governments are more stable.” says Gimeno, who works at UTHealth School of Public Health in San Antonio. “So it is important to see if working conditions are improving as well.”

While global competition has spurred job growth in Central America, many of the newly created jobs are considered informal employment, which is thought to be associated with poorer working conditions. With that in mind, the researchers are targeting both formal and informal work employment in their study.

“What is unique about this multi-country study is that, in contrast to most other studies of working populations in emerging nations, which largely center on the formal sector, we are able to get meaningful and nationally representative information from the informal sector,” says Delclos, who works at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “Despite harboring the most hazardous working conditions and the more vulnerable workers, including children, epidemiological studies of this sector have largely been lacking.”

Study collaborators include researchers from the Center for Research in Occupational Health at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues from SALTRA, a network of academic and research institutions headquartered at the Universidad Nacional in Costa Rica.

In addition to household surveys, the researchers will also conduct focus groups in rural and urban areas to gather more in-depth information about topics such as working hours, contracts, hazardous exposures, and health, mental health and injuries relating to working.

The study continues UTHealth School of Public Health’s long history of research in Central America, and capitalizes on the school’s location, and its collaborations in the region.

“It’s easy for us being in Texas to connect to Central America,” Gimeno says. “And in terms of our expertise and track record, we are well positioned to collaborate with institutions across six countries.”

The study launched in September 2016 and is estimated to be completed by November 2019.

—  Written by Anissa Anderson Orr

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