Editor’s Note: Three people in the Ithaca area have died in farm-related incidents in the last 21 months, including Craig Schenk (Lansing), Francisco Ortiz (Town of Ithaca), and Nathan Hoover (Town of Culvert, just north of Tompkins County).
Tom Joyce is president of the Midstate Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a private non-profit that works to improve worker health and safety in the region.
Joyce submitted this letter to The Voice for publication. As always, those interested in submitting a response can email email@example.com.
— Jeff Stein
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Written by Tom Joyce:
On Monday September 29th Craig Schenk was killed on a small, organic dairy farm in Lansing, NY. This is the most recent fatality in a surge of dairy deaths in central New York State in the last 21 months (Francisco Ortiz, Nathan Hoover). Dairy farmworkers and their advocates believe that these deaths could have been prevented by attainable changes in farm machine technology, training and personal protective equipment. Health and safety conditions on dairy farms have been deteriorating for years as the workforce becomes larger and as the diary farmers race to ramp up dairy production to meet the needs of a booming industry.
In 2013 to address this situation dairy farmworkers and safety activists advocated that OSHA initiate a Local Emphasis Program (LEP) to increase its oversight over New York dairy farms. LEPs combine comprehensive education outreach to farm owners with enforcement of current OSHA regulations. LEP’s are used by OSHA to carry out random, surprise inspections in a high-risk industry where disproportionate numbers of accidents and fatalities are occurring. Over the last year OSHA carried out this program successfully. As a result dairy farmers increased their attentiveness to training, personal protective equipment, and hazard communication. And farmworkers are learning that they have a right to a safe and healthy workplace free from hazards.
More must be done, however, to prevent the deaths of dairy farmworkers. Small farms in the United States (those with less than ten employees) are excluded from OSHA rules and regulations. Thus the LEP is only utilized on dairy farms with ten or more employees. This means that these employers are not subject to any government oversight or responsibility to provide a workplace that is safe. This is analogous to asking drivers to abide by the speed limit on certain roads by their own free-will, freeing drivers from any form of enforcement with a law that applies elsewhere. Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States with fatality rates higher than either mining or construction, and small farms should not be freed of this oversight and accountability.
The NYS May 1st Farmworkers Organizing Committee, along with advocates from the Worker Justice Center of NY, the Workers Center of Central NY and the Midstate Council for Occupational Safety and Health, are working to reduce the dangers to dairy farmworkers. We urge OSHA to continue its LEP into a second or even third year as it did in New York’s sister dairy-production state of Wisconsin. We also ask our Congressional representatives to take into consideration the human right to work free of the fear of serious injury and death and eliminate the appropriations rider that exempts small farms from health and safety standards. The dangers on small farms are no different than large farms and they should not be exempt from safety and health enforcement.