Worker safety at dairies needs the Legislature’s attention

As we celebrate Labor Day, I want to take this opportunity to thank all workers for the contributions they make to our economy. I hope all get to enjoy end-of-summer picnics and barbecues, watch a baseball game or participate in some other family activity this weekend.

Last year, 27-year-old Randy Vasquez spent part of Labor Day with his wife, Nubia, and two children, ages 2 and 3. It wasn’t a day off for him because he worked on a dairy farm, a seven-days-a-week operation.

Randy didn’t know it would be his last Labor Day.

On Feb. 24, Randy said goodbye to his family and went to work as a milker on the night shift at the Riverview Ranch Dairy in Mabton. Around 9 p.m., he took the front loader out to feed the cattle. When he was finally found at 4:30 a.m. the next morning, he was strapped into the front loader sunk six feet deep in a manure lagoon. Randy died of “asphyxiation due to inhalation of dairy waste water sludge,” according to the Yakima County coroner. Randy drowned to death in cow manure.

It was the kind of horrific death that most of us don’t want to think about. But lots of farmworkers and community advocates have been thinking about little else since Randy’s death. It has galvanized the farmworker community and our state’s labor movement to demand safer working conditions on dairy farms.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, working on a dairy farm is more dangerous than being a police officer or a construction worker. All farm work involves long hours and large industrial equipment, but dairy farm workers also breathe foul air containing bacteria and manure dust, move quickly over slick cement floors, and are frequently kicked and stepped on by 1,500-pound animals.

Since 2000, a dairy worker has been killed on the job an average of every 16 months in Washington state. In 2013, 438 injury claims were submitted by dairy farm workers — 10 percent of all workers in the industry! Every single day, a dairy worker is injured severely enough that it requires reporting to the state. That injury claim rate is 73 percent higher than the rate for all Washington industries.

Since only 1 percent of dairies in the West are inspected in any given year, the only real law governing safety at dairies is that of the supervisor and the owner. In the wake of Randy’s death, the state Department of Labor and Industries fined $6,800 the Riverview Ranch Dairy for three safety violations deemed to be “serious.” The owner is appealing the fine.

So how do we go about improving worker safety at dairies? As a consumer, you can’t exert pressure on the Riverview Ranch Dairy because you have no idea if you are buying their products. Like hundreds of dairies in Washington — and most of the 26 registered dairies here in Snohomish County — Riverview dairy products are sold under the name of the Seattle-based cooperative Darigold.

So what level of responsibility does Darigold take for the dangerous working conditions at its “member-owned” dairies? Farmworker activists asked that question at a March rally outside Darigold headquarters and a company spokesman repeatedly said that they “regret the accident but could not make any comments until after the Labor and Industries investigation.”

That investigation has come and gone, its finding appealed by the ranch owner, and still no answer. So earlier this week, another rally was held outside Darigold. More than 30,000 petition signatures were handed over — delivered in a casket — that call on Darigold to meet and work with the United Farm Workers union and the Washington State Labor Council to improve dairy worker health and safety.

In addition, we are working with state Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle, on legislation that will increase safety and health training for dairy workers and supervisors, require lights, fencing and signage around manure lagoons, and will increase fines and penalties for injuries and deaths.

This kind of activism is what Labor Day is really all about. The reason most of us have safe and healthy workplaces, minimum and prevailing wages, workers’ compensation if we get injured at work and weekends is because workers and their unions got together and insisted on them.

Randy’s death shows us that the job is far from done. We have to insist that steps be taken to avoid preventable, horrific tragedies like the death of Randy Vasquez.

Jeff Johnson is president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

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