Work can be dangerous for anybody in the U.S., where about 4 out of every 100,000 workers die each year earning a paycheck.
Starting in January, the federal agency charged with ensuring worker safety will be targeting a specific field in New York state — dairy farming — where deaths on the job greatly exceed the nationwide average. New York’s dairy farms employ nearly 10,000 people, and the death rate for workers is about 24 per 100,000 each year.
The fatality rate on the state’s dairy farms is one factor drawing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for inspections.
There’s a new emphasis on the state’s yogurt industry, prompting a need for more milk at a time when a dwindling number of dairy farms are producing more milk than ever before.
There were roughly 28,000 dairy farms in New York state back in 1970, By 2007 that number fell to roughly 5,700. During the same time period, milk production from New York has blossomed from about 10.3 billion pounds to 12.1 billion pounds, according to OSHA.
“Unfortunately, we’ve started to see a rise in the number of accidents and fatalities in this industry,” said Chris Adams, an OSHA area director based in Syracuse.
OSHA and farm organizations are holding meetings with dairy farmers and promoting educational materials to get them ready for unannounced inspections in an industry where workers contend with moving parts, dangerous animals and, in some instances, aging equipment that lacks modern safety features.
A Cornell University study published in March 2011 by Thomas R. Maloney and Nelson L. Bills of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences found a wide range of working hours for dairy farm employees. In a survey of New York dairy farms, they found 24 percent worked less than 40 hours a week, while 21 percent worked more than 70 hours a week.
Experienced milkers, the study said, were earning on average $9.71 per hour ,while those without experience earned an average of $8.58 per hour. More than 20 percent of experienced workers earned between $10 and $11 hourly, and more than 25 percent of experienced general farm laborers were earning between $10 and $11 hourly.
A study published last year by the Worker Justice Center of New York called for the need to improve training for farm workers, many of whom don’t speak English.
According to OHSA documents, the number of dairy farm workers was nearing 10,000 in New York back in 2009, about 2,600 of whom primarily speak Spanish. Few of these workers get any training aside from what they pick up from co-workers, and most need the work badly enough that they don’t complain or ask for safety improvements, according to Carly Fox, a worker’s advocate at the Worker Justice Center of New York, which has offices in Albany, Kingston and Rochester.
“If we keep going at this rate, we’re worried there will be more deaths,” said Fox, who spent part of the past two years speaking with farm workers at dairies.
Fox said she’s seen workers using tractors and skid steers without training and met with the co-workers of one person who was crushed against a wall by one of these machines. She’s heard stories of laborers working alone in a barn and being crushed by a bull.
Most disconcerting for Fox were stories about work hours and the pace of the job.
“Because we’re so competitive in New York state in this dairy industry, there’s a real pressure to drive down costs and keeping the pace going,” Fox said.
Not all dairy farms will be inspected. Those that will be include farms employing 10 or more nonfamily workers and those which provided temporary housing for workers over the 12 months prior to the arrival of an inspector.
OSHA’s Adams said the first step is education.
“We’re telling farmers ‘This is what you need to do to provide a safe workplace,’ ” he said.
A dozen hazards found during research into the dairy industry will be high on the list of things inspectors will be looking for. They include manure storage facilities and collection structures, which present drowning and inhalation hazards.
Inspectors will look for safety stops and gates in areas where manure is pushed off ramps to prevent a worker from accidentally falling into the manure. Warning signs, ropes and other ways to prevent vehicles and people from falling into manure storage are also required.
Animal waste produces dangerous gases including hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. In 2010, a farm worker went into a tanker used to haul manure in 2010 and was overcome by methane gas. He survived, but the worker who went in to help him succumbed to the fumes and died, according to OSHA reports
The position of workers in relation to dairy cows and bulls will also be a focus, as cattle present a crushing hazard to workers. Two years ago, OSHA investigated another dairy farm death after workers found an employee inside a cow barn, where he’d been crushed and killed by the cows.
Other elements of a farm will be eyed for safety, including electrical systems, tractors, power take-off equipment powered by tractors and confined spaces such as solos and grain storage bins.
Heavy machinery produces a great deal of noise, and workers are supposed to have hearing protection. They should also have access to safety data sheets on chemicals used on a farm which can cause poisoning if ingested or splashed.
Schoharie County dairy farmer Sandra Prokop, co-owner of Crossbrook Farm in Middleburgh, attended a class Dec. 19 that outlined plans for inspections and said she found the information worthwhile.
Crossbrook Farm has about 400 milking cows, but the farm doesn’t fall under the category of those that would be inspected because they don’t employ more than 10 nonfamily members. Despite that, Prokop said she attended the session because the health of employees — no matter how many — is important.
“I think being prepared is what we do and try to do anyway, so I think this is kind of a reinforcement of what we as a dairy industry try to do every day,” Prokop said.
A former dairy inspector of 400 farms in New York and New Jersey, Prokop said she believes dairy farmers already place an emphasis on safety.
“We’re very safety conscious as an industry,” Prokop said.
There could be a cost, however, for farms that don’t have all the gear and written material required.
“If farms really want to be 110 percent compliant, yes, there could be some cost involved and some changes in procedure and documentation. They may need some time to be accustomed to that,” Prokop said.
She said she got some ideas for Crossbrook Farm while at the informational session, like putting up informational signs so employees are more aware of risks on the farm.
“I came into the meeting thinking it’s one more thing we’ll have to do or it’s more money out the door. I left thinking some of these things we can do,” Prokop said.
Cobleskill dairy farmer John Radliff doesn’t expect inspectors to show up at his family farm either, but he said he’s seen situations on some farms that clearly need addressing.
There are universal shields to guard against injury near power take-offs — linkages to tractors that power other equipment — and some farmers he’s met don’t bother to get them. He’s seen workers standing in water near electrical components that needed service or weren’t grounded as well as some structures that weren’t built very soundly.
“These are common sense things that should be done. No farm is worth the life of a family member or an employee,” Radliff said.
He said it’s his hope OSHA will partner with farms with the goal of improving safety instead of just issuing citations and fines.
Call for delay
Some upstate legislators are calling on OSHA to slow down its plans because of the impact fines could have on the farms’ bottom lines. In a letter to an OSHA official, U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna R-Utica, and six other legislators, including fellow congressmen Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, and Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, are calling for a delay.
“OSHA should agree to allow New York dairy farmers more time to educate themselves and prepare for inspections. We all share the goal of operating farms as safely as possible; let’s simply make sure this program is actually about improving safety and less about collecting fines from hardworking farmers to send to Washington,” Hanna wrote in the letter to David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.