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Ferguson: High Hazards, Gruesome Deaths: Farmworker Safety Programs Facing Cuts

By Julie Ferguson

Monday, July 24, 2017 | 867 | 0 | 0 min read

Farm work is dangerous work. Injuries and fatalities are gruesome: amputations, death by being caught in machinery or rolled over by tractors; drownings in manure pits; suffocation in grain bins.

Julie Ferguson

Julie Ferguson

More than 5,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. died on the job between 2003 and 2011, a death rate that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration puts at seven times higher than average.

The Idaho Statesman recently featured a troubling but excellent story by Audrey Dutton on two workers who drowned in manure pits, a well-known fatality risk in agriculture. While all farmworkers — including children — face risks, the high fatality rate is worsened by the high rates of immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, who may have a poor grasp of English, or who are reluctant to make waves, particularly with the recent immigration crackdowns.

And while many farms are good to their workers, there are also many who exploit them:

“We would characterize those employees as vulnerable workers,” said Jordan Barab, who was deputy assistant secretary of OSHA in the Obama administration and now writes Confined Space, a newsletter about worker safety. “Some of them are undocumented, but even those who are documented have come from other countries where, let’s say, the government is not friendly.”

These workers tend to be suspicious of government and unaware that OSHA exists or that they have rights. A complaint can put them at risk of getting fired or deported, Barab said.

“This is a group OSHA has a hard time reaching,” he said.

At Sunrise Organic Dairy in Jerome County (Idaho) workers did not know about OSHA and were concerned about working near the manure pit the winter (Ruperto) Vazquez-Carrera died, according to someone who knew him, who asked not to be identified because of fear of retribution.

In addition to immigrant and non-English speaking workers, children are another vulnerable population at high risk of injury on farms. Small farms — particularly family farms — are unregulated because OSHA cannot inspect farms of 10 or fewer non-family workers, even when fatalities occur. Plus, many of the record-keeping rules that OSHA was implementing have been rolled back, meaning that many injuries and deaths will continue falling under the radar.

These statistics are important for targeting agricultural safety and prevention programs, as well as for targeting enforcement efforts.

OSHA programs are cash-strapped and about to be even more so. Barab documents how the House budget devastates OSHA and MSHA enforcement. Having served as deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, he should know.

In addition to enforcement cuts, many prevention programs will be affected. Here’s a concrete example: Farm safety funding could be uprooted. The article talks about rollovers, which are the top cause of farm injury and death.

But under the president’s proposed budget, one of the key prevention programs, National ROPS (rollover protection system) Rebate Program, would be hurt by budget cuts to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

In the abstract, cutting regulations and federal budgets can seem like a good idea, but they can have real world health and safety implications. We don’t think worker safety or public health should be on the chopping block.

These investments are often a cheap dollar. Measured in either lives or dollars, we earn incalculable savings through the prevention efforts of the Centers for Disease Control, OSHA and NIOSH. Earlier this year, the $11 million Chemical Safety Board was scheduled for elimination, but after much public outcry, the House budget calls for CSB funding to be restored.

Julie Ferguson is a marketing consultant for Lynch Ryan & Associates, a Massachusetts-based employer consulting firm. This column was reprinted with permission from the firm's Workers' Comp Insider blog.

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