Improving Farm Safety

[Editor’s Note: The following Opinion piece appeared in both the Syracuse Post-Standard as well as the Ithaca Journal, and was written by TCWC Member and Cofounder, Carl Feuer, also of the Midstate Council on Occupational Health and Safety.)

Improving Farm Safety

Too many of our nation’s workplaces are still hazardous to the health and safety of workers. And farming is the most hazardous of them all.

On February 5th an Ithaca man died from injuries he sustained when he became entangled in an auger-type device on a bedding machine while working on a Tompkins County dairy farm. An immigrant to this country, he was a long-time employee of the farm.

Joining his family, co-workers, employer and friends in mourning his death is not enough. We also need to make farm work a safer occupation. How can we do this?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2011 there were 24 fatal work-related injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting. This was the highest fatality rate for any industry, more than mining, almost three times the rate in construction, and about eight times the national average for all industries. Worse, while the overall fatality rate has been declining in recent years, it is rising in agriculture.

Learning about these dangers and seeing how real they can become for farm workers in Ithaca as elsewhere is, however, not the real shocker. The real shocker is finding out that while almost any private sector worker in the United States knows that OSHA is there with regulations, inspectors, penalties for violations and training requirements that it will enforce as needed, farm workers on small farms have no such guaranteed protections.

Agriculture is like the “wild west” when it comes to safety regulation because Congress has imposed special restrictions which exempt small and medium-size farms employing 10 or fewer workers from enforcement of most federal health and safety rules. The farms so exempted constitute 85 percent of the nation’s agricultural worksites.

Even without OSHA enforcement, however, there are still many responsible farm owners out there. We applaud them. Still, how many of you would not drive faster on our nation’s highways if you knew no police-manned radar guns were lurking in the distance?

So what can we work and hope for in this situation to ensure that ALL farm workers are safe? First, let’s tell our Congressional representative Tom Reed that we want him to work to ensure that OSHA is enabled to enforce its regulations at ALL our nation’s workplaces, including small farms (202-225-3161,

Second, farmers in our community, regardless of the size of the farm, should commit to following safety regulations and best practices, whether or not OSHA is there to enforce them.

Finally, there are free resources for farm owners. The New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH- or 800-343-7527 x239) provides free on-farm worker safety training (in English and/or Spanish) that addresses agricultural hazards and encourages safe work practices. NYCAMH also conducts free on-farm safety surveys to review potential hazards as well as the use of personal protective equipment. NYCAMH’s assessment is for the farm’s benefit only and survey information is kept confidential.