Small farm workers are dying and there’s still no oversight.
In many rural areas, farming is a way of life passed down from generation to generation. It can also be a dangerous career, partially because of the intensity of the labor required and because, many times, small farm workers are left alone to take on risky tasks.
Landon Gran, 18, of Saint Peter, Minnesota, lost his life in a grain accident last year after being caught in a long metal screw that pushes grain out of the bin, called the sweep auger. His employer, Richard Gaalswyk, was away making a delivery at the time, according to the police report. After the incident, Landon’s mother, Michele, called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “I said, ‘You need to get down there, my son was killed down there, and it was a preventable death. This guy left my son alone,’” she recalled.
But the federal agency and the state division couldn’t investigate due to laws preventing oversight. Landon had been killed on a small farm. In 1976, Congress attached a rider to OSHA’s budget exempting farms with ten employees or less from inspection and enforcement of safety protocols. The same loophole protects farmers from being held accountable for employee deaths in cases like Landon’s.
In Mulvane, Kansas, 39-year old Tim Hunt died after getting trapped in a grain trailer. In Maine, Roy Varney was killed after he drove a skid steer into his family farm’s manure pit. In Knox County, Ohio, 16-year old Ashtan Russell was run over by heavy machinery on a chicken farm. The list of preventable, yet unenforceable deaths and injuries is extensive.
“I think this is absolutely insane how they will not come out to a farm when there’s a death,” Gran said. “I think that’s absolutely nuts. Every death should be investigated.”
“You’ve got protections in almost every other kind of workplace out there,” said Denise Kingsley, who lost her son Jason. “I feel like there needs to be something in place.”
In 2019, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), tried to remove the rider from OSHA’s budget, but was unsuccessful. “Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows fatality rates in agriculture are among the highest of any sector,” DeLauro said. “That is clearly a problem, and it is why I fought to remove this rider.” She added, “The small farm exemption disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities, as 76% of all farmworkers identify as Latino or Hispanic.”
In 1999, Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) proposed an amendment to give OSHA permission to investigate deaths on small farms if the victims were minors. In doing so, Reed made clear the agency would be restricted to determining the cause of death rather than have the authority to impose penalties. Yet, Reed withdrew it before a it could be voted upon, because he knew it would fail. In 2013, the Obama administration cited a small Nebraska farm for safety violations, but the decision was met with harsh criticism the American Farm Bureau Federation and OSHA.
“The rider leaves all workers on small farms with no safety rights at all,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the nonprofit National Employment Law Project. “OSHA is not able to do even the most basic of preventative work – investigate fatalities so we can find the cause and make sure precautions are put in place to prevent another tragedy from occurring.”
Iris Figueroa, a staff attorney with the advocacy group Farmworker Justice, added, “We know, unfortunately, that the way human nature works is if there isn’t somebody monitoring and enforcing a rule, the likelihood that it’s going to be complied with is just lower. That’s the reality.”