IMPORTANT VICTORY: Dairy Farmworkers Advocate For and Win Special OSHA Program to Enforce Health and Safety on NYS Dairy Farms
[Editor's Note: This special news is a result of a growing Alliance of Upstate New York Workers' Centers. Rebecca Fuentes works with the Central New York Workers' Center based in Syracuse, and Carly Fox works with the Workers Justice Center of NY. The Tompkins County Workers' Center is proud to be a part of this growing collaboration of Workers' Centers based in Upstate New York!]
By Carly Fox & Rebecca Fuentes
“We are all human beings. We all live under the same sky. The only thing that is different about us is a piece of paper. The owners of the dairy farms aren’t the ones milking the cows. We are milking the cows. We are working overnight shifts, milking hundreds of thousands of cows every day. And we know that the dairy industry in New York State is thriving because of our hard work. All we are asking for is respect.” Augusto, dairy farmworker
On July 23, 2013 at the offices of the OSHA Syracuse Regional District a meeting took place. This could have been just another meeting of workers’ advocates and OSHA representatives talking about the issues affecting dairy farmworkers in the region: the fatalities, the most recent one in February of this year [in Ithaca], or the countless stories of injuries coming from the workers we were meeting at our OSHA trainings. But this time three dairy farmworkers came to the table with us to speak about their own experiences as injured workers and that of many others. They showed their scars and they spoke with the conviction and credibility of someone whose lives are on the line every day they work with livestock, dangerous machinery and hazardous chemicals. Kevin, a 23-year old worker from Veracruz, Mexico, recounted his experience working at one of the biggest dairy farms in the North Country. He got injured three times, in a span of two weeks. One of his injuries, caused by a chemical that splashed on his eyes, left him blind for half an hour. He was working alone at 3 am without any personal protective equipment. He was so desperate for relief that he used water from the cows’ drinking well to apply to his eyes. There was no emergency procedure, no first aid kit, no one to help him. When he could see better he had to take the 45-minute walk alone, still in pain, to his trailer.
Another worker, Salvador, spoke about witnessing how the treatment of cows was more important than the safety of the workers at many of the dairy farms he has worked at in 5 years. “When I started working at one of the farms, they made me sign a paper saying I will never hurt a cow, but I wonder about the animals hurting us, that doesn’t matter so much out there.”
Prior to the meeting we had educated ourselves about OSHA’s “Local Emphasis Programs”, which are enforcement strategies intended to address hazards or industries that pose a particular risk to workers. We learned about the 2011 LEP in Wisconsin, that focused on dairy farms the first and only in the country to focus on dairies. The LEP in Wisconsin involved OSHA inspections of randomly selected dairy farms without a complaint or a fatality, which are normally the only two reasons why inspections of workplaces take place.
The three workers spoke about the lack of training and first aid when a worker gets hurt. And then asked OSHA to implement an LEP in the dairy industry in NYS, in the wake of three farmworker deaths in two years, and countless injuries. OSHA agreed to launch one in 2014.
In the months after the July 23 meeting, OSHA has done intensive outreach to dairy farm owners and the organizations that represent their interests to inform them about how to be in compliance with OSHA standards in preparation for early next year when the inspections will start.
As advocates and organizers we continue to talk to workers about their rights under OSHA and organize with worker leaders to speak up and get many more workers involved in making their workplaces safe. Last month we had a meeting with OSHA staff in which two injured workers talked about the hazards and dangers of dairy farms and the issues they face when they try to change those conditions. There has been several OSHA complaints submitted since July and the Workers Center of CNY has launched an organizing campaign with dairy farmworkers hand in hand with the advocacy and legal services expertise of the Workers Justice Center of NY. We have founded a dairy farmworker advocacy committee comprised of worker justice organizations, farmworkers and researchers who have begun to speak out about conditions on dairies.
As we move forward we recognize this as a shared victory with our sister organizations The Tompkins County Workers Center, the Midstate COSH Foundation and the Occupational Health Clinical Center. All of our efforts have been strengthened during the meetings of the Upstate New York Worker Centers’ Alliance and more importantly, the voices and efforts and the risks taken by the workers remind us that we need to always believe in the power of the workers and follow their lead. Like Jose Cañas, one of the dairy farmworker leaders in this effort for workplace fairness and justice like to say “Necesitamos sumar sumar para hacer crecer el movimiento” “We need to add and add to make this movement grow”.
When he was asked about his thoughts on the implementation of the LEP Cañas said, “I feel very proud and satisfied to know that OSHA has taken our petition and our preoccupation to this degree to make inspections and not wait for workers make a complaint or a fatality to happen.”
“We are all human beings. We all are under the same sky. The only thing that is different about us is a piece of paper. The owners of the dairy farms, aren’t the ones milking the cows. We are milking the cows. We are working overnight shifts, milking hundreds of thousands of cows every day. And we know that the dairy industry in New York State is thriving because of our hard work. All we are asking for is respect.”
Augusto (name changed) is a dairy farmworker who spoke those words to the staff of the OSHA Syracuse regional office last month, in preparation for the 2014 OSHA “Local Emphasis Program” (LEP) a program which will call attention to the lack of safety on New York State’s dairy farms. Augusto had been injured the week prior, two of his fingers severed by a machine on a dairy farm in Central NY. Like so many other farmworkers, Augusto was never adequately trained when he started his job, even though he works with deadly chemicals, dangerous livestock and operates machinery. And when his injury occurred, the farm, like most in NYS, was ill equipped to handle the emergency. Now he is struggling to access worker’s compensation and still keep his job without facing retaliation.
Inspired by the voices of farmworkers we were meeting on outreach and in our trainings, in early 2013 The Workers Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York joined efforts to address some of these egregious workplace conditions. Dairy farmworkers were too often getting injured, or even killed. The average worker was too fearful of making a complaint to OSHA about unsafe conditions for fear of being fired. Three deaths had already occurred on NYS dairy farms within a two-year time period. Simultaneously, governor Cuomo was announcing that NYS’s dairy industry was booming, leading to our state’s rank as the number one producer of Greek Yogurt in the nation. Nowhere in the press release and celebration of this upstate economic boom was there the story of the toll this was taking on the lives of workers. Governor Cuomo didn’t announce that most workers work 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week. Some work around the clock when the dairies are so small there are only one or two “hands” to milk the cows, leaving workers to work 3 5-hour shifts in a 24 hour period, or to work 7 days a week, sometimes years on end, with no day of rest. And as farmers celebrate the relaxing of government regulations such as the Clean Water Act to cut small farms some slack and increase milk production, barely anything is being done to remedy the day to day workplace dangers that dairy farmworkers are facing. As worker advocates, we realize that if these same conditions continue, more accidents, or even deaths were bound to take place.
Workers from around the state are ready to demand justice and equal rights. We have launched a dairy farmworker advocacy committee comprised of worker justice organizations, farmworkers and researchers who have begun to speak out about conditions on dairies. In July three workers went to OSHA to describe the dangers and ask for OSHA’s help, leading to the launch of the LEP. In the next year dairy workers will help researchers carry out the first-ever worker-led participatory research project to assess what the needs of workers are and the strategies they would like to use to make systemic change.