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Farm worker deaths are rising. Could local emphasis programs work?

According to OSHA, agricultural work is among the most dangerous occupations in the nation. Between 2003 and 2001, over 5,000 U.S. agricultural workers died on the job. That's a death rate seven times higher than the average U.S. worker.

The insurance industry magazine Claims Journal just reprinted a story from the Idaho Statesman discussing one common dairy accident: manure pond drownings. Although the incidents discussed took place in Idaho, there's no reason they couldn't have occurred in North Carolina. In the past three years, OSHA records show, workers were killed in manure pond accidents in at least five states.

A few key conclusions made by the article are 1) many dairy workers are unauthorized immigrants and do not realize they have workers' compensation rights; and 2) OSHA may not have the resources to police every dairy; and 3) the industry needs to step up its role in preventing accidents.

We won't try to summarize the entire piece in a blog post, but for the uninitiated, a manure pond is a common way to store manure and keep it from polluting nearby waterways. The waste in the pond can also be used as fertilizer later. Unfortunately, "drowning in manure ponds is widely known in the dairy industry," according to OSHA.

For safety, manure ponds should be enclosed by a fence or barricade to keep workers from getting too close in the dark or when weather obscures conditions. There should also be a sign warning people away from the pit.

As is the case for many OSHA offices, Idaho's field office has a very tight budget. The AFL-CIO union estimates it would take 208 years for the local office to inspect every worksite in the state.

Many agricultural workers are immigrants -- often unauthorized ones who fear deportation. Many do not realize that undocumented workers have workers' comp rights. These vulnerable workers are less likely to report workplace safety violations or make workers' comp claims. This may incentivize their employers to be lax about safety.

All workers, legally authorized or not, have the right to file workers' comp claims. Furthermore, they cannot legally be retaliated against for reporting workplace safety problems or for filing a claim.

There is a way the industry can help, however, and consumers can play a role. OSHA has set up "local emphasis programs" in other states that allow it to reach out to industry players. At the same time, the dairy industry in Idaho has created its own $200,000 safety training program for the 490 dairies in Idaho.

Why? "Consumers demand transparency," said the executive director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association. "They want to have the knowledge that the workers on our dairies are properly trained."

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