Farmworkers Shouldn’t Have to Sacrifice Safety and Health

To commemorate National Farmworker Awareness Week  (March 24-31, 2018), Farmworker Justice staff are writing blogs that touch on different aspects of farmworkers' living and working conditions.

"Well, thanks to this work that we do every day, on the one hand there are many benefits and many sacrifices... The work that I like the most is picking peaches. Well, it’s not that easy but first we need to learn to cut. In order to harvest peaches the first thing is to know the color and size the boss is asking for, and also you have to carry the weight of the sack we use to collect the peaches. After you have learned, you have to carry the ladder. This work is very beautiful."

As this South Carolina farmworker probably knows, work in orchards and around ladders is very dangerous. Every year, thousands of farmworkers suffer fall-related work injuries, causing economic hardship to the workers and their families, and all too often resulting in serious disability and tragic death.  Fall hazards exist in all types of farm operations in both crop and animal production, including work in vegetable fields, packing sheds, fruit orchards, tree nurseries, greenhouses, mushroom houses, dairies, poultry farms, cattle feedlots, and other livestock operations. Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that thousands of agricultural workers are injured by falls every year. The number of fall fatalities in agriculture in 2016 was almost 5 percent of the annual fall fatalities among all U.S. workers, yet farmworkers amount to less than 2% of the U.S. workforce.

Falls in agriculture are readily preventable and the high injury rates from falls in agriculture could be reduced through common-sense precautions, including conducting regular and frequent inspections of ladders, working surfaces, and walking areas, and providing basic safety training on the prevention of slips, trips, and falls for all employees.  In 2008, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began a rulemaking process to revise its existing federal ladder and fall protection standards which mandate that ladders and other working surfaces conform to certain safety requirements. During this years-long process, farmworker advocates urged OSHA to provide coverage to agricultural workers as part of the final revised standards.  Historically, agricultural workers have been excluded from the majority of OSHA’s workplace health and safety regulations, even though agriculture is one of the country’s most dangerous occupations. Unfortunately, farmworkers were not included in the final regulation that OSHA issued last year. OSHA’s standards include ladder and fall safety requirements similar to state provisions already adopted to protect agricultural workers in California, Oregon, and Washington. Experience from these large agricultural states shows that implementation and compliance with fall standards can effectively reduce costly and potentially tragic fall-related injuries in agriculture.

The people who put food on our table by raising crops and livestock and harvesting our fruits and vegetables are experiencing high rates of serious injuries and even death from causes that are preventable, and are recognized as preventable in other occupational settings.  We owe it to farmworkers and their families to end the discrimination in the occupational safety standards.