One-Year Anniversary of Farmworker Ortiz’s Death Brings Attention to OSHA Local Emphasis Program

In Worker's Rights on February 6, 2014 at 9:35 am

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SYRACUSE, NY – February 5th marks the one-year anniversary of the death of dairy farmworker Francisco Ortiz. Francisco, of Veracruz, Mexico, who was crushed by a faulty auger while working on a small dairy farm in Ithaca, NY [see memorial slideshow]. He was survived by his son, Alejandro, and his wife, Mayra, who recounts that her husband had long complained about the ill-functioning machine that eventually took his life. Unfortunately, Francisco’s death was neither an isolated, nor an inevitable, occurrence. Since 2007, there have been at least twelve fatalities on New York dairy farms. An alarming five of these fatalities have occurred since 2011.

The Workers Center of Central NY (WCCNY) and the Worker Justice Center of NY (WJCNY) applaud the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) announcement in December 2013 to launch a Local Emphasis Program (LEP) in the dairy industry. The WCCNY and WJCNY strongly advocated for this program in July of 2013, when they organized the first delegation of dairy farmworkers to speak with OSHA representatives in Syracuse, NY. The new OSHA LEP promises to help reduce the risk of accidents and injuries for those whose dedicated labor has helped to drive the state’s economy, and made New York the leading yogurt-producing state in the nation.

The OSHA LEP focuses on reducing the so-called “dairy dozen” common occupational hazards on dairy farms. These include: drowning and inhalation of gases in manure storage facilities; erratic bulls and cows; shock hazards near faulty electrical systems; roll-over of skid-steer loaders and tractors; amputation or entanglement by unguarded power take-offs and transmission systems; crushing while servicing equipment; contact with or ingestion of hazardous chemicals; asphyxiation in confined spaces; falls from bunker silos; and hearing loss from noise generated by farm equipment. The LEP includes an education component that has already generated dozens of free health and safety trainings for dairy farm owners and workers to help dairy farms come into compliance.

The implementation of the LEP will mark the first time that New York dairies are subject to surprise inspections, which will begin in July 2014. Previously, OSHA enforcement officials were only called onto farms if an accident was reported, or if a complaint was lodged against an employer. Yet, for fear of retaliation, many workers are unable to speak up when they witness or experience acute workplace dangers, leaving such hazardous conditions to go unreported. Instead, they often leave their jobs to seek safer and more justly compensated opportunities. Said one 23-year old former New York dairy farmworker, who left the industry after nearly losing his eyesight when asked to apply a chemical he had not been trained to use: “I can’t risk my life for the $7.25 I’m making here.”

Even though farm businesses can reduce employee turnover—and improve their bottom lines—by providing a safer working environment, seven House members from Upstate New York are asking the federal government to indefinitely delay the surprise investigations and implementation of the LEP. Led by Representative Richard Hanna, the House members claim that it would result in “onerous fines.” However, the first year report of a similar LEP recently implemented in the Wisconsin dairy industry lists positive outcomes like increased awareness about workplace hazards and the fact that not one farm was put out of business as a result of the program. Rebecca Fuentes, worker advocate with WCCNY, calls the Representatives’ actions “an affront to basic dignity and respect for all farmworkers.” She further says: “We invite these politicians to meet with workers like Lazaro and David, whose testimonies of workplace injury were recently published in the Syracuse Post Standard. We all know that farming is a dangerous occupation and so we ask them, how many more fatalities and accidents are we willing to accept as proof that a program like this is needed?”

“While this program is not going to resolve all of the issues related to workplace health and safety, it is a step in the right direction,” explains Carly Fox, worker advocate with WJCNY. “We should still recall that farmworkers are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of workplace rights that most everyone else enjoys, including not having the right to overtime, collective bargaining, or even a weekly day off.” Cornell University doctoral student researcher Kathy Sexsmith adds that: “Latino immigrants working on dairy farms experience particular health and safety concerns due to language barriers and the fear to assert their rights. They also express great concern about the safety of their employers, the family members of their employers, and their co-workers. This LEP can help to protect the rights of all of those working on dairy farms to a safe workplace.”

We encourage OSHA to take further steps to ensure the rights of all workers on dairy farms to a safe and healthy workplace are protected. All farms, regardless of the number of employees, terms of the employment contract, and housing agreement should be required to comply with OSHA regulations, so that the needless deaths of workers like Francisco Ortiz are brought to an end.

Carly Fox, Education and Outreach Paralegal
Workplace Health and Safety Project
Worker Justice Center of NY
1187 Culver Road
Rochester, NY 14609
(585) 325-3050 ext. 20

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