CSU to research dairy worker illnesses with $1M grant

FORT COLLINS – Colorado State University researchers are using a nearly $1 million federal grant to find ways to protect dairy workers’ health.

Dairies are dusty places, and dairy workers are at heightened risk of developing respiratory ailments because of particles inhaled on the job.

Leading the research project is CSU’s High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety. The center is examining the reasons that dairy workers are susceptible to asthma, chronic bronchitis and decreased lung function — and what can be done to decrease the risk.

The three-year study, headed by Stephen Reynolds, a CSU professor and director of the High Plains Intermountain Center, is funded with a $900,000 grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Colorado’s dairy industry grew by about 20 percent between 2007 to 2012, when the state’s 131,000 milk cows produced more than 3.2 billion pounds of milk, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The number of dairy workers statewide totals around 3,000, mostly in Northern Colorado.

These numbers are expected to rise because of demand for milk from Denver-based Leprino Foods’ cheese processing plant in Greeley.

The CSU team wants to identify ways to minimize negative health effects for dairy workers, while also helping dairies to reduce costs tied to employee illness. During the project, researchers will work with dairies to measure respiratory responses to airborne particles, then will design and test interventions to address those responses.

Some well-known dairy farms already have signed on to collaborate on the research project to protect their workers’ health.

“We want to be proactive and support this research because we want to deal with any problems our workers may see in the future,” said Juan Velez, executive vice president of farm operations for Boulder-based Aurora Organic Dairy. “We believe strongly in employee well-being.”