Workers Memorial Week Reflection

“Every day in America, 13 people go to work and never come home. Every year in America, nearly 4 million people suffer a workplace injury from which some may never recover. These are preventable tragedies that disable our workers, devastate our families, and damage our economy. American workers are not looking for a handout or a free lunch. They are looking for a good day’s pay for a hard day’s work. They just want to go to work, provide for their families, and get home in one piece.” 
– Former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Workers Memorial Day speech April 26, 2012 

levy schroederLast week we wrapped up the annual Workers Memorial Week. A look at worker safety and health numbers in 2011 indicate there were 4,693 work-related deaths in the general work population in the United States.  Included in that number are farmworkers who have died from grain bin entrapments, farm equipment accidents, and falls from ladders or equipment.  Likewise, there are an average 50,000 work-related illness fatalities each year within the general population, with farmworkers considered to be a highly vulnerable portion of the workforce—subject to heat stress, pesticide poisoning, musculoskeletal and repetitive motion conditions, and green tobacco sickness, just to name a few.

In 2010, there were 31.5 occupational fatalities among agricultural workers per 100,000 workers; a rate higher than in industries more commonly viewed as dangerous, such as mining and construction.  Reports from the federal government indicate there were 1,500 crop production deaths between 2005 and 2010; though we believe those numbers are much higher because it does not include premature death due to pesticide exposure or other stresses upon the body.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are between 10,000 and 20,000 incidents of pesticide illness from farm work every year.  These estimates are likely a woeful underestimate as we, along with the EPA, recognize that farmworkers often do not report occupational illnesses or seek treatment.  Fear of lost time and wages combined with apprehension about losing their job are barriers to reporting when they become ill.  Even when pesticide exposure results in a farmworker going to the doctor, it may be misdiagnosed, as symptoms of pesticide poisoning can mimic flu-like symptoms.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed by President Nixon in 1970 with the purpose of “assuring so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the agency within the U.S. Department of Labor responsible for carrying out the mission of that law. There are no OSHA regulations that address the agricultural sector specifically, but employers are required to provide drinking water, hand washing facilities and toilets for the workers if they employ 11 or more people. All employers are obligated under OSHA’s General Duty clause to provide a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that can cause injury, illness, or death to the workers.

The EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) provides agricultural workers with protections against pesticide exposure.  The WPS covers all agricultural workers and focuses on three important areas:

  1. Notification of pesticide applications
  2. Providing information and training to workers about the hazards of pesticide residues and how to protect themselves
  3. Mitigation of pesticide exposure such as providing personal protective equipment and decontamination supplies

While these laws include provisions to protect workers from retaliation from their bosses, we know from numerous accounts shared by farmworkers across the nation threats of withholding pay, cutting pay, firing, blacklisting and other coercion exist.  Knowing that their workers are unlikely to file a complaint, or even know how to file a complaint, allows bad actors to flout the law.  With only one OSHA inspector for every 59,000 workers in the general workforce, and even fewer EPA inspectors, enforcement is a great challenge.  In resource-strapped agencies, the focus shifts from enforcement to other tools such as worker training.

Worker training, particularly among the 2.5 million farmworkers in the United States, is a critical need.  AFOP is joined by many farmworker advocacy groups in providing worker health and safety to those who harvest the food we eat.  AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs is pleased to have reached over 550,000 farmworkers since 1995 with our pesticide safety education and well over 30,000 farmworkers with heat stress prevention training.  Obviously, there is much more work to be done.  AFOP honors the memory of all workers who have died from an occupational illness or injury.  We will continue to support farmworkers in the fields with training and educational materials that just may help them go home healthy and safely at the end of the day.

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