There are many metaphors that are commonly used in Washington DC . One of those metaphors is to describe something at “the third rail of politics.”  Wikipedia defines “third rail of politics” as “a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is “charged” and “untouchable” to the extent that any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically.”

For OSHA (and the entire federal government), one of those “third rails” that we learned to approach with extreme caution, was the agriculture industry, and more specifically, small farms.

In an excellent exposé on hazards in the farming industry, Politico reporter Ian Kullgren, describes how Your Farm Is Trying To Kill You and the success the agriculture lobby has had in fighting off any protections for farm workers, even children who work in one of America’s most dangerous industries.

In eight years at the Department of Labor during the Obama administration, whenever we orbited too close to issues affecting the agriculture industry in an effort to save lives, we emerged sometimes victorious, sometimes not, but always bloody and bruised.

When OSHA tried to protect workers — not through regulations, but through clarifications or new enforcement initiatives for  existing regulations —  we were consistently met with a solid wall of resistance from the agriculture industry, accusing us of destroying the great American family farm — when we were trying to safe the lives of workers — often teen-age kids –from suffocating in grain silos, when we tried to correct a misinterpretation of OSHA’s Process Safety Standard to compel small fertilizer establishments (like West fertilizer that exploded in 2013, killing 15 people and leveling part of the town) to take basic precautions with hazardous materials that other chemical establishments were required to take.

If it was a construction zone, it would be fenced in and you wouldn’t be allowed in without a hard hat. Farming is just as dangerous [as] construction, but there are no restrictions — Barbara Lee

Responding to pressure in an election year, the White House even withdrew a proposed regulation that would have protected children on farms. And not children of the farmers themselves (who would have been permitted to continue exposing their own children to life-threatening hazards), but other peoples’ children hired to come work at a farm.

Agricultural Killing Zones

Kullgren lays out the basic issues:

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in America, with 22 of every 100,000 farmers dying in a work-related accident. Farmers are nearly twice as likely to die on the job as police officers are, five times as likely as firefighters, and 73 times as likely as Wall Street bankers.

Farming death rates may be high, but the injury rates are even higher. In 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there were 58,000 adult farm injuries — nearly 6,000 more than the number of U.S. soldiers wounded in all the years since 9/11.

Many of those injuries last a lifetime, driving up disability rates among rural Americans, who are 50 percent more likely to have some form of disability than their urban counterparts. Also contributing are high rates of injury in other professions rooted in rural areas, including logging, fishing and trucking.

 But the lack of safety and health protections on farms reaches far deeper than just physical injury:

In fact, the jobs that provide the way of life in America’s iconic farms, fisheries and forests also tend to be the most dangerous in the country. As a result, occupational safety — or the lack of it — is a major and largely unexamined contributor to a cycle of disability, poverty and chronic poor health that makes life difficult for millions of rural Americans.

“It increases depression and isolation, and that further exacerbates health conditions,’’ said Tom Seekins, director of the Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities at the University of Montana. “It can be a really vicious cycle.’’

Tractors account for one-third of all deaths on farms and specifically tractor rollovers account for 80 of tractor deaths. Although new tractors have rollover protection devices,  older tractors still in use don’t. Fewer than 60 percent of tractors in use in the U.S. have rollover protection, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Killing the Children

Unlike most of the rest of American industry that long ago stopped employing children in dangerous industries, children in agriculture are still victims

Farms are especially dangerous for children. From 2003 to 2010, there were more deaths for agriculture workers younger than 16 than there were for workers of the same age in all other industries combined, according to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. The vast majority of these minors were family members and therefore not subject to labor laws.

“If it was a construction zone, it would be fenced in and you wouldn’t be allowed in without a hard hat,” said Barbara Lee, director of the center. “Farming is just as dangerous [as] construction, but there are no restrictions.”

Congress To OSHA: See No Evil, Correct No Evil

But the agriculture industry had been powerful enough to keep the government off of their backs:

For decades, groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation have lobbied Congress successfully to exempt small farmers from most workplace regulations. A perennial rider to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration budget bill prevents the agency from inspecting or enforcing violations on any farm with fewer than 11 employees — a loophole that exempts up to 88 percent of all U.S. farms. The rider also prevents OSHA from tallying nonfatal injury data on small farms, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep reliable data on farm size.

What that means is that “If you’re in a government agency and you’re trying to think about how to regulate farmers,”Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser at OSHA under the Obama administration said, “you’re not going to get past thinking about it before they’re up on Capitol Hill lobbying like you’re trying to shut them all down. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Size matters

And the ironic — or tragic — fact is that small farms are much more dangerous than large farms as  “A 2008 CDC study found that tractor rollover protection systems were most prevalent on farms with $100,000 in sales or more. And more recent BLS data show that 69 percent of workers who died on farms between 2011 and 2015 were self-employed.”

The reason for that, according to Dennis Murphy, a Penn State agricultural safety specialist. “As you get more employees, you take on more of a management structure, and you start looking like more industrial employers and, therefore, you come under safety regulations,” Murphy said. “As you get bigger, you get new farms that tend to be more safe.”

The Bottom Line

It’s clear that the agriculture lobby has enormous power, even as Kullgren describes above, prohibiting OSHA from inspecting or enforcing violations on any small farm. But it’s actually worse than Kullgren describes. How?

A rider is language put on an agency’s budget bill forbidding it from spending money on an activity that Congress doesn’t want the agency to touch. In this case, small farms. While there are other riders on OSHA that restrict its enforcement authority, the small farm rider is the most drastic and destructive. For example, Congress has put a rider on OSHA’s budget bill that forbids OSHA from conducting “programmed” or pro-active safety (not health) inspections on some small businesses. But that rider at least allow OSHA to investigate and issue citations when a worker is killed or an employee makes a complaint, or identifies an imminent danger situation.

It doesn’t matter if five workers file an imminent danger complaint with OSHA, or an 18 year old kid is killed, or five 18-year old kids are killed. OSHA is not even allowed to investigate the incident, much less issue citations.

The small farm rider, on the other hand, prohibits OSHA from ever setting foot on a small farm — defined as a farm with fewer than 11 employees (family members don’t count). It doesn’t matter if five workers file an imminent danger complaint with OSHA, or an 18 year old kid is killed, or five 18-year old kids are killed. OSHA is not even allowed to investigate the incident, much less issue citations. Despite repeated requests from the White House to modify the rider to at least allow OSHA to investigate fatalities, Congress refused to consider a change.

OSHA’s initiatives in the agricultural industry met some success, but not without enormous effort and political cost. After a spike in suffocation deaths grain facilities in 2010, OSHA redoubled its enforcement efforts, generating a backlash from the agricultural industry.  The result: Congressional oversight, threats of riders, constant briefings and press inquiries, often over whether a facility is a farm (that grows vegetables) or a processing facility (that stores and resells grain), for example.

In 2013, following the West Fertilizer explosion, the White House ordered OSHA to address a problem with the Process Safety Management standard’s “retail exemption.”  The PSM standard exempted retail facilities. The standard didn’t define what a retail facility was, but the preamble to the standard made clear that the intent was to exempt gas stations and hardware stores that sold small quantities of hazardous materials in small packages. An early 1990’s interpretation of that rule exempted any facility that sold more than 50% of its hazardous materials to an end user, allowing small facilities, like West, to store huge amounts of highly hazardous materials.

When OSHA attempted to change that interpretation to its original intent, the agency was bombarded with resistance from the agricultural community (that feared that the new interpretation would significant raise prices of fertilizers like anhydrous ammonia), and accompanying Congressional oversight, lawsuits and a rider on OSHA’s budget prohibiting the agency from enforcing the requirements.

The bottom line is that sometimes agencies win these battles (e.g. grain handling where the enforcement initiative continued and grain deaths dropped), often they lose (child farm workers and retail exemption). But even where the cause is right and the prospects for winning are favorable, the power of the agriculture industry is intimidating. Government agencies only have a finite amount of resources, energy and political capital to fight these enormous battles, even where winning will clearly save lives. Given the choice, who can blame an agency from avoiding these battles and putting resources into something that is likely to be easier and more successful?

Even if more workers and children are dying in easily preventable circumstances.

4 thoughts on “Blood in your food: Injury and Death on Farms”
  1. I have been fortunate to work in two state programs that had both the resources and the will to disregard the federal budget restrictions and to apply comprehensive workplace health and safety protections within the agriculture industry. And after more than 2 decades to build upon that experience, at least two conclusions are very clear in my mind: first, agriculture is a dangerous industry and it should be treated as such by those of us with regulatory authority; second, the agriculture industries in both Washington and Oregon have not been destroyed by the states’ expectation that they comply with the same minimal safety and health expectations under which other industries must operate. To the contrary, in both states agriculture is a major part of the economy.

    It continues to offend me to no end that workers in agriculture are denied basic safety and health protection when the OSHAct contains no such exemption. Budget riders should be allowed to effectively rewrite statutory protections, but they do. And the restriction on OSHA’s authority to address agriculture has, sadly, been a bi-partisan issue, with the budget rider passed year after year regardless of which party controls Congress.

  2. Of course, as I posted, I saw a critical typo — the second sentence in my last paragraph should read “Budget riders should NOT be allowed……”

  3. When I was first out of college, I worked on small horse breeding farms. I rode on the back of trucks holding on to hay bales, drove unsafe trucks, used tractors in all sorts of conditions, unstuck grain silos with my bare hands or boots. This is on top of the inherent dangers of working with large animals that can be skittish, scared or territorial. I used and handled chemicals I know now are extremely dangerous. I look back now and wonder why I am not dead. I wanted to show my farm manager that even though I was a “girl” I was tough. I was so ignorant. Unfortunately-I am sure similar situations still occur

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