Friday, November 30, 2018

Does high rate of deaths on small farms rate stem from exemption to workplace laws and regulations?

When a worker dies on the job, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration normally investigates to see what happened and if similar incidents can be prevented. But there's an exception: when a worker dies on a small farm, OSHA can't investigate because Congress granted such farms immunity from safety oversight, even though there's some evidence that small farms are more dangerous on average than other workplaces. "Over the last four decades, many hundreds of employees have been killed or seriously injured without follow-up investigations by OSHA because small farms are exempt from agency scrutiny,"  Eli Wolfe reports for The New Food Economy.

Also, because small farms are exempted from all OSHA oversight, agency inspectors can't check for hazards before injuries or deaths occur, respond to employee complaints about unsafe conditions, or even to advise or train small farmers on simple and inexpensive safer practices. Congress first attached a rider to the OSHA appropriation in 1976 (and every year since) that prohibited using federal funds to regulate a farm with 10 or fewer non-family workers. That applies to about 93 percent of U.S. farms that employ anyone outside the family, about 1.2 million workers, Wolfe reports.

"There is no official count of farm deaths that have been exempted from investigation since OSHA doesn’t keep track. But data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that, in a recent six-year period—2011 through 2016—333 employees were killed in accidents on farms with 10 or fewer employees," and 1,474 farmers or their family members were killed in accidents on such farms, Wolfe reports. "OSHA wouldn’t have followed up on any of these, though it’s possible a small number were investigated by inspectors from the few states that, on their own, monitor safety on small farms."

Worker safety advocates argue that the OSHA exemption has prevented an official accounting of how small-farm workers got killed, which makes it harder to identify trends and prevent more deaths. Inspections would also help determine if a farmer was reckless or negligent with their employees, Wolfe reports. State job safety agencies could investigate small farms but mostly don't.

Only California, Oregon and Washington regularly inspect small farms. A study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that those three states have significantly lower farm worker death rates than other states, and concluded that lifting the exemption would reduce fatalities on small farms in other states, Wolfe reports.

Leading agricultural lobbying group the American Farm Bureau Federation declined to comment for Wolfe's story or for requests from The Rural Blog to comment for this item.

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