September 25, 2017

Is It Time For More Safety Regulations?

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Pick a list of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. and farmers rank near the top almost every time. Working around large machinery, 1,500-pound-plus animals, through inclement weather, for long hours is a perfect recipe for something bad to happen.

Too often we read of tragedies that take lives too soon. Many of them involve working around manure lagoons or pits. Workers can be consumed by fumes or inadvertently fall into pits or lagoons.

Two such accidents in Idaho have caused some to call for greater regulation of dairy farms, especially as it relates to immigrant labor. Manure lagoon accidents took the life of two immigrant laborers within the last year, and some are calling for greater regulations to protect workers and their safety.

According to a Washington Post article, there were 6,700 injuries on dairy farms with more than 11 employees in 2015, a rate more than double the average for private industries. On those farms, 43 laborers died.

“Workers are extremely worried, and there is a consensus that government is not doing enough, and neither are employers, in ensuring safety precautions,” says Benjamin reed, who hosts a Spanish call-in radio program aimed at local agricultural workers in Idaho.

The article also states that the Idaho dairy industry is seeking to implement new statewide training protocols for Hispanic workers. “We won’t shy away from the fact that those fatalities provided a wake-up call…that we need to be more robust in safety training,” says Rick Naerebout, director of operations for the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. “Many employees now didn’t grow up in the industry, either in the U.S. or Mexico, so they don’t have the same exposure to working with animals or working with machinery that employees had in the past.

The Idaho Dairymen’s Association is budgeting $250,000 toward training programs.

Federal oversight of worker safety programs should fall under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but the Post article states that the department has taken a mostly hands-off approach.  Inspections are usually done when there is a report of a serious incident or fatality. When the Post asked how it plans to monitor conditions for farmworkers, OSHA responded in a written statement: “OSHA is dedicated to enforcing safety and health laws that apply to agricultural operations, and when a fatality or serious incident occurs, or when OSHA receives a referral or a worker complaint, it will conduct rigorous inspections and take appropriate measures.”

“It’s not even on our radar,” said John Holevoet, director of government affairs for Wisconsin’s Dairy Business Association. “They were not very frequent, even at their peak, and now it has really fallen off. I don’t think there has been a visit in six or nine months.”

Some think dairies should be treated just like any other company that manages large amounts of industrial waste. Idaho dairy farmers echo the sentiment of producers around the country, stating that they would like to work closely with lawmakers to limit the financial implications of such expanded oversight.  

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