Washington state’s approach to workplace safety illustrates how death rates drop sharply when oversight covers every farm, no matter how small.
Hugo Valdovines stepped inside a giant machine that farmworkers use to wash sweet corn and looked around.
“Is that bleach right there?” he asked.
Farm owner Manuel Imperial nodded. But he explained that workers can use a nearby hose if any of the powerful chemical splashes on their faces while they disinfect the machine.
Not good enough. Valdovines, an industrial consultant who works for the state of Washington, told the farmer to build an eyewash station. His inspection also turned up other problems. He told Imperial to replace an unsafe ladder and find a way to protect vegetable pickers from falling off moving trailers.
The farmer didn’t flinch. After all, he had requested the two-hour safety audit.
“A lot of farmers want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what to do,” Imperial told Valdovines in August. “I want to get better.”
Farmers in Washington have embraced the nation’s most comprehensive agricultural safety program, an initiative that contrasts sharply with the hands-off approach that prevails in much of the Midwest.
Unlike most farm belt states, where agricultural deaths are rarely investigated, Washington regulators are usually at the scene after an agricultural worker gets killed. Washington is one of three states that enforce safety rules on farms with fewer than 11 workers. Washington also provides consulting services to small farms that wouldn’t qualify for such help in other states.
The results are stunning. Despite having a larger farm workforce than any state in the Midwest, Washington has reported a total of 63 farm deaths since 2003. By comparison, Minnesota, Iowa and six other Midwestern states each have had more than 200 work-related farm fatalities during that time.
Of the 47 states that reported at least one farm death in the past decade, Washington has the nation’s lowest fatality rate. In some years, the state has gone without a single death linked to a tractor rollover, a common cause of fatalities elsewhere.
“Washington has one of the best systems in the country,” said Matt Keifer, director of the National Farm Medicine Center in Wisconsin.
Last year, Washington consultants visited 294 agricultural operations, including dozens of farms in the Yakima Valley, the state’s agricultural heart. By comparison, Minnesota has provided free consulting to 10 farms since 2010.
If all states followed the Washington model, the lives of about 1,000 farmworkers could be saved in five years, according to a study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Farming remains one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations, generating an average of more than 400 work-related deaths each year.
“There is a profound difference in the numbers between Washington and the other states,” said Anne Soiza, assistant director of Washington’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which oversees workplace safety. “I believe it is because our presence makes that difference.”
Few business owners enjoy regulation, but the idea of making small farms subject to workplace safety rules hardly caused a ripple in Washington.
Regulators point to the state’s unusual constitution, which since 1889 has required protection of all employees who face conditions that are “dangerous to life or deleterious to health.” There are no exceptions. Similar rights do not exist in the U.S. Constitution, or state constitutions in Minnesota and other Midwestern states.
Those workplace protections led Washington down a different path in the 1970s, when the state — along with Minnesota and 20 other states — elected to create workplace safety programs instead of giving that job to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). By law, those state-run programs must be as effective as federal OSHA in protecting workers.
But while the federal government and most states exempt small farms from oversight, Washington officials said they never seriously considered that. California and Oregon are the only other states that elected to use state money to enforce safety rules on farms with fewer than 11 workers. All states are barred from using federal money to inspect small farms.
“It happened pretty quietly, and without a major fight,” said Michael Silverstein, who ran the Washington OSHA program for 10 years and recently retired from the state agency.
Representatives of Washington’s two largest farm groups said the industry has not tried to overturn the system.
“I don’t think it’s a big issue out here in the state of Washington,” said Corwyn Fischer, assistant director at the Washington Farm Bureau.
Farmers have pushed back on how the rules are enforced. Perhaps the biggest fight involved the state’s move to require roll bars on tractors built before 1976, a move aimed at combating tractor rollovers, the leading cause of farm deaths across the country. Though the rule contains some exceptions, Washington goes far beyond the federal standard, which simply requires rollover protection on newer tractors.
There have been relatively few fatalities linked to tractor rollovers in Washington since the rule took effect in 1995. A 2006 state report showed a dramatic increase in the number of older-model tractors equipped with rollover protection, even though the state has not helped farmers pay for it.
Some farming advocates say it’s not fair to compare Washington’s safety record with Minnesota and other Midwestern states because the mix of crops is so different. Washington produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including nearly 60 percent of the nation’s apples, which depend heavily on manual labor. Minnesota and Iowa dominate in corn and soybeans, a highly mechanized harvesting process.
“Picking lettuce and tomatoes is not as dangerous as operating a skid loader,” said Minnesota Rep. Paul Anderson, a fourth-generation farmer from Starbuck, Minn.
Veteran farmers in Washington see it differently. They point out that tractors and skid-steer loaders are constantly buzzing around pickers during harvest season, hauling large cartons of apples and trailers loaded down with fresh vegetables.
“It is different, but a tractor is a tractor,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. “My educated guess is that [rollover protection] on tractors has saved some lives and prevented some injuries.”
Farmers often fear the worst when regulators show up, but many in Washington say they find the experience surprisingly tolerable.
Jack Wheatley, whose family has raised hay in central Washington for more than 50 years, got his first visit from a state regulator in 2011. The result was a $1,650 fine for two safety violations, including missing safety guards on equipment. Two years later, the regulators returned when the arm of a backhoe crushed one of his workers when he got off the machine without first turning it off.
This time the fine was $900. The backhoe was missing a safety pin that could have prevented the accident.
“The guy who handled the case was very sympathetic to our loss,” Wheatley said. “He could have fined us $50,000.”
The experience made Wheatley take safety more seriously. Besides replacing the pin on his backhoe, he added rollover protection to three of his older tractors — even though he wasn’t cited for any tractor violations.
If Wheatley’s farm had been in Minnesota, it would have been too small to warrant a visit from regulators. He sometimes has as few as four full-time workers. But in Washington, an accident inspection is required if a farm has at least one employee.
Since 2003, Washington regulators have investigated 17 fatalities on small farms. Regulators typically found at least one safety violation. Fines ranged from $100 to $24,400, well below the legal maximum.
To address federal concerns over the state’s modest fines, which ranked 44th in the nation in 2013, Washington recently agreed to impose a minimum fine of $2,500 for any violation that contributes to a fatality.
Washington regulators said they want farmers to welcome the attention. A 2011 state report showed that traumatic injuries declined 20 percent more at all Washington businesses cited for at least one violation. Consulting visits reduced injury claims by 25 percent.
“We call it ‘selling the ticket,’ ” said Jeanne Henke, compliance manager for the Yakima Valley area, where Wheatley’s farm is located. “I would be very upset if someone on my crew came in as a storm trooper and intimidated somebody. … We need to find the big hazards, the things that cut people’s arms off, that disable people, that kill people. But we are also there to educate the workers and the employers.”
Twenty minutes after safety consultant Jim Woodfin started his tour of Jason Sheehan’s dairy farm, the regulator was standing next to a large milk tank, pointing his finger at a spinning drive shaft.
“You can make contact with your hands or fingers — boy, it causes amputations,” said Woodfin, noting the absence of a shield to protect workers.
A few minutes later, Woodfin caught an employee driving a tractor without a seat belt. He found a door to the milk barn blocked by a broken fan. He poked his hand into a nest of electrical wires that should have been covered.
By the end of his three-hour visit, Woodfin had documented nearly two dozen safety violations.
“We found little things, but we always do,” Woodfin told Sheehan. “You got a lot more going right than you do heading in the wrong direction.”
Sheehan, who requested the consulting visit, took issue with just one finding — that he buy four helmets for his fleet of all-terrain vehicles.
“So even on the dairy, guys got to wear a helmet?” he asked.
“Yeah, whatever the manufacturer recommends,” Woodfin said.
Sheehan said he wanted a thorough review of his dairy to make sure his 38 workers are safe. A few years before he and his wife acquired the farm in 2011, two workers died in separate accidents. A cow trampled one, and a 1,500-pound hay bale fell on the other. Regulators looked at both deaths and found two serious violations in the hay bale incident, resulting in a $300 fine.
Altogether, Sheehan figures he’ll spend about $2,000 to address the hazards Woodfin’s team uncovered.
Washington farmers said complying with rules aimed at preventing accidents is usually affordable, and much better than the heartache and financial consequences of dealing with a fatality. Henke said most violations at farms can be addressed with improvements that cost a few hundred dollars.
“I think all of the things they pointed out can help us avoid an accident,” said Sheehan, who grew up on a dairy farm in Rochester, Minn., that his relatives still operate. “It’s going to take at least a day or two of my employees’ time to go around and fix everything. A lot of the stuff they pointed out is not expensive. It just needs to get done.”
ABOUT THIS SERIES
In researching this series, the Star Tribune obtained records from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for all deaths related to crop farming and livestock production from 1992 to 2013, the most recent data available. We excluded cases that BLS officials classified as unspecified because they could not determine whether the deaths involved farming or other types of agricultural operations, such as logging or fishing. The Star Tribune also reviewed thousands of death certificates to identify possible farming accidents in Minnesota. We obtained investigative records from sheriff's departments that responded to those accidents, as well as reports from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry and the Minnesota State Patrol. We also interviewed more than 100 people who lost a friend, co-worker or relative in a farming accident.
The Star Tribune calculated state fatality rates by comparing the number of farm deaths from 2003-2013 to the total number of farm workers in each state, including all operators, hired laborers, migrant workers and unpaid laborers. Worker data came from the 2012 census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.