I sat down with a current OSHA employee to discuss how work with OSHA has intersected with agricultural laborers and the way that both federal and state OSHA treat these workers.
What roles have you personally held within OSHA?
Currently, I work for Connecticut OSHA in their consulting sector helping employers come into compliance with OSHA. I am only allowed to visit and help small employers who don’t have the resources. In the past, I worked for the fining part of OSHA as a compliance officer. I inspected factories or private sector work sites and issued fines if they were not in compliance.
What kind of role does OSHA play in agricultural labor standards and programs?
Depends on the state. In California, state OSHA has made a decision to put agricultural labor as a focus area. In other states, especially those with less agriculture, OSHA does very little. A lot of farms are exempt, especially family run farms. In general, federal OSHA does very little for agricultural labor besides emphasis programs on field sanitation There are no real standards for a lot of other issues: ergonomics, back-breaking work, heat stroke. OSHA can get involved, but it normally requires a complaint. For example, a worker on a farm in CT allegedly died of heat stroke. The question was whether it was related to the job or maybe just a guy with heart failure. OSHA did actually go out to inspect, but only after requests from a community organizing group. Typically, inspection has to be a result of a complaint. Since workers often get fired for calling OSHA, there are not very many complaints.
So family-run farms are exempt?
OSHA does not have jurisdiction over family run farms where the only workers are family members.
Do you think that is a problem?
Any exemptions are a problem, everyone should be protected.
You’ve done some work specifically related to agricultural laborers in CT. Can you tell me about those efforts?
I looked at the hazards faced by cigar tobacco, apple, and nursery workers.
For tobacco, I looked at the issue of musculoskeletal disorders, wrist and shoulder injuries caused from constant stooping and standing. I also investigated the risk of being poisoned by nicotine in tobacco leaves. I did not find this to be a big issue among cigar tobacco pickers since they handle the leaves for gently than cigarette workers. I also looked for the prevalence of skin disease, dermatitis, tuberculosis and heat stress. After my inspection, I suggested the implementation of hygiene measures such as close-by hand-washing and toilets. I advised the creation of rest breaks with water provided not just from carried water bottles. My group could not come up with any ergonomic solutions that the farm owners felt were reasonable.
At the nurseries, I also looked for ergonomic issues such as those caused by moving and changing pots. There was also noise problems from potting machines. To remedy these issues, we suggested quieting the machines and provided earplugs. We worked to create pot with better lips and suggested raising the tables.
I did not work with the group who went to the orchards, but I know they looked at ergonomic issues and the risk of falling from ladders.
Overall, our goal is to get rid of the hazard if we can and provide protective gear as a last resort.
What has been your experience with employers?
There is a real spectrum. Some employers are committed to solving problems and genuinely appreciated the help, while some employers are just taking advantage of desperate people.
What about enforcement? Does OSHA actually come to these farms frequently?
There is little enforcement for farms. Perhaps, there is more enforcement in some states through emphasis programs, but depends on the state. I’m only familiar with one or two inspections in Connecticut. Employers do not fear OSHA. This may change with the new administration. There are always questions of jurisdiction. Farm workers frequently slip through the cracks.
What changes could be made to improve the situation?
More empowerment of farm workers. This is already happening through some farm worker unions. California has the strongest group of organized workers. In many cases, farm workers are an invisible population. When I say that I work with migrant workers in Connecticut people say “What? I didn’t know we had migrant workers or even farm workers here.”
Some good work is already happening at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a government-run institute that does research, provides resources and makes grants for projects available. Also, the Migrant Clinic Network, funded by the government, supports access to clinics for those migrant workers who may not get regular care. Since these workers change places frequently, these clinics ensure they get their prescriptions refilled and other medical needs taken care of. The government also has programs for migrant children to go to school and get their records transferred if they move. There is quite a bit in the area of services and legal aid, but as far as regulation not as much. Also, these workers are eligible for worker’s compensation. The employer has to pay them for lost wages and medical care if they get injured. But for this to work the employee has to know about those rights and put in paper work. They do not frequently do that. This may be because of a language barrier or worry about repercussions.