Intrepid Idaho Journalist Showcases Hazards Facing Farmworkers

Photo by Earl Dotter,

Dairy workers drown in manure pits. Farmworkers poisoned by pesticides.  Limbs amputated. Electrocutions. Horrible, but just the tip of the iceberg on Idaho farms, according a remarkable article by Idaho Statesman journalist Audrey Dutton.

Drowning and other manure accidents killed farmworkers in Idaho and at least four other states during the past three years, according to OSHA records.

And that’s just a fraction of the deaths in agriculture, one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S. More than 5,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. died on the job between 2003 and 2011, a death rate seven times higher than average.

And it’s getting worse for farmworkers in Idaho, according to OSHA:

The local OSHA office began noticing a “dramatic uptick” in agriculture fatalities in early 2013, and it has persisted, said David Kearns, OSHA area director.

“That raised a flag to us, that there was something happening out there,” he said. “We’re dealing with vulnerable workers in very unique and continually changing situations. … Why we are seeing an uptick, I don’t know.”

Dutton lists some of the incidents she’s come across

▪  Javier Tellez Juarez lost both arms and a leg when his clothes got caught on machinery at a southeastern Idaho farm in the mid-1990s. His case prompted a change in Idaho law to require that farmers to carry workers’ compensation insurance for their laborers. They had been exempt for decades.

▪  Maria Aguirre was one of 29 workers poisoned by pesticides on a Caldwell onion farm in 2005. She told the Associated Press that the poisoning made it painful to eat and left her co-workers, including her mother and brother, with health problems. “Farmers know that some workers are scared because they’re illegal here, so they can do anything they want,” Aguirre said then.

▪  A longtime employee of Amalgamated Sugar Co., Mario Munoz, got caught in machinery at the company’s Nampa plant in 2009. Munoz, who had been studying to become a medical assistant, was the third person to die at the factory since 1985.

▪  Farmworkers in Marsing, Shelley and Melba have died in recent years after being run over, folded in half, and electrocuted.

And an OSHA expert explains why they are considered “vulnerable workers:”

Many of those killed are foreign-born. Most of the workers killed on Idaho farms in the past few years were non-English speakers or spoke English as a second language.

“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 the ones 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.

Small Farms: OSHA KEEP OUT!

Most upsetting, however, is the fact that Congress has forbidden OSHA from setting foot on farms with ten or fewer employees — not including family members (unless they also run a temporary labor camp.) Now, pay attention, because few people know about the absurdity of the small farm  “rider” that has been on OSHA’s budget since the 1970’s.  OSHA has another small business rider that forbids OSHA from enfocing any safety-related violations for small employers who belong to industry groups that have injury and illness rates below the national average. But in that case, OSHA can still inspect if there’s a fatality, three or more hospitalizations, an imminent danger, a worker complaint, or any health-related violations.

The agriculture rider, on the other hand has no exceptions for small farms or farmworkers who work on small farms: even if there’s a death (or 9 deaths), a worker complaint, an imminent danger or a worker complaint, OSHA cannot investigate or cite. Dutton describes what this means:

Those farms are supposed to keep records and to report work-related deaths and catastrophes. But it’s impossible to know if they do, because OSHA is not allowed to check if they’re complying or to fine them if they’re not.

The exemption kept OSHA from investigating the death of a 36-year-old worker in March at Double Arrow Inc. in Terreton, northwest of Idaho Falls. C.J. Frizzell, a Rexburg father of four with one on the way, died when he was caught in a hay grinder at the farm.

“To have these small farms, which are highly hazardous workplaces, and not to allow OSHA to set foot there, is inexcusable,” Barab said.

Across the border in Washington, a state occupational-safety law makes small farms subject to safety enforcement. In Idaho, there is no extra layer.

“There are dairies where there are only two workers, and they’re milking 1,800 cows,” Trejo said. “This is why the accidents happen and nobody finds out.”

Read It And Weep: Then Act

Read the entire article (and don’t forget to check out the video, below, with OSHA Area Director David Kearns).  This is an amazing piece of journalism and follows another great article that Dutton wrote about hazards faced by workers in residential construction.

And when you’re finished reading it, pass it around — especially to other journalists in your area. Dutton’s journalism should serve as a model to be replicated across the country. Working conditions promise to only get worse for these workers as OSHA’s resources decline, and training for farmworkers under the Susan Harwood Worker Training grants are eliminated.

Stories like this are essential for educating the public — and our lawmakers — about the hazards that workers face, the obstacles erected to addressing those problems, and what needs to be done to keep the problems from getting worse.

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