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Photo: David Sommerstein
Photo: David Sommerstein

NY dairy farms will get surprise inspections from OSHA

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Workplace safety rules are about to get a little stricter on New York dairy farms. There's an ongoing, national debate about workplace safety on farms, which are exempt from many federal regulations.

In 2012, the Department of Labor proposed rules that would protect children from the most dangerous farm tasks. The Labor Department ended up withdrawing that proposal. About a year later, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, announced plans for a program of surprise inspections for New York dairies. The random visits are set to begin in July, in response to an alarming trend of frequent accidents in the industry.

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Reported by

Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

Last summer, Kevin Robledo started a new job on a dairy farm in Lowville, in Lewis County. Robledo, of Veracruz, Mexico is in his mid-twenties. He started milking and cleaning cows on Marks Farm so he could send money back to his family in Mexico.

Marks Farm is considered one of the North Country's largest dairies. It has a herd of 3,000 dairy cows, 2,500 acres of corn, and a crew of 60 workers, many of them Hispanic.

Part of Robledo's job involved handling strong chemicals, like Crimson Chlor Sanitizer and Copper Sulfate. He hadn't been working for more than a couple of weeks when, early one morning, he got some cleaning solution in his eyes.

In a video testimony filmed and posted online by the Workers' Center of Central New York, Robledo says he was alone when the incident happened. He called for help, but no one heard him, he says.

"He showed us on his hands how that chemical had burned him, and also how that chemical got splashed on his eyes," says Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer of the Worker's Center. Fuentes says this wasn't the first time Kevin got hurt. She says Kevin also fell, and another time, a cow pushed him up against a metal bar. All this happened during Kevin's first two weeks on the job, she says.

"His experience was such that he decided he was never going to work on a dairy farm again."

Fuentes says Kevin now lives in Pennsylvania, where he works in a restaurant as a dishwasher. But before he left, he filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA's Syracuse office investigated, and fined Marks Farm $500 for failing to train workers on how to handle the hazardous chemicals.

The document describing the violation, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request,  also says Marks Farm didn't post safety data sheets about the chemicals.

OSHA didn't find that anyone was injured. But in an email, an OSHA representative said, "That does not mean that the injury alleged by the employee did not happen."

Dave Peck, one of the owners of Marks Farm, says he remembers that investigation. "We didn't contest it at all, he says. "We went right along with it."

Peck says this wasn't the first time an employee was hurt on the job. He says one person even died on Marks Farm. It was over 20 years ago, Peck says, when a rolling tractor crushed an employee. "It's something I don't ever want to see occur again," he says.

Across New York State, eight people died working on dairy farms in 2011. Four died in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many more get injured each year.

OSHA took notice, and late last year, the agency started developing stricter rules to make dairies, like Marks Farm, safer. OSHA calls it a "Local Emphasis" or surprise inspections program.

"You're working with equipment. You're working with animals. You're working with chemicals. There are a lot of hazards that are on the farm that need to be controlled and eliminated as much as possible," says Christopher Adams, the director of OSHA's Syracuse area office. He says New York dairies have grown from small, family farms into huge, industrial operations, where worker's safety is more of an issue.

"It's just that combination of seeing that growth, seeing more employees now involved in it, and unfortunately, seeing that increase in the fatality rate, that's really spurred us on towards beginning this Local Emphasis Program," he says.

In July, OSHA's surprise inspections begin. For a three-month trial period, OSHA's officers will visit dairy farms with 11 or more employees, or dairies with a temporary labor camp.

OSHA does random inspections in other industries with high accident rates, like construction, gas drilling, and logging. This is the first time it's targeting the dairy industry in New York.

Adams says the state's logging industry, which had a high fatality rate in the early 2000s, was a model. He says outreach to the loggers, and surprise inspections, made all the difference.

"What we found was we were able to see that through our efforts, that these fatality rates for logging within New York did decrease," Adams says.

Last year, when OSHA first announced its plans for the random inspections, it was pretty controversial. A lot of dairy farmers felt like they already had enough state and federal regulations on their plate.

Some lawmakers, including Congressman Bill Owens, wanted to delay the inspections. Addressing the issue in January, he said, "We're not opposed to OSHA conducting the – if you will – surprise or spot inspections. We asked for a delay so that people could get educated."

Since then, OSHA has been preparing dairy farmers. For months, the agency has distributed documents and held webinars. Farmers can even sign up for mock inspections.

Leading a webinar in April, OSHA's Ronald Williams explained how it's all going to work: "We're going to come to your milk house, your main office, wherever you're located, and sit down with you, have an open conference, and explain, 'This is why we're here.'"

Dave Peck of Marks Farm says he's ready. "I can be honest, it's more regulations, which slows down what you're doing," he says. "But the end benefit to me is, one, financially advantageous, and two, I don't know why anybody would want anybody injured or, worst case scenario, killed. It's a good program, period."

The surprise inspections begin on July 1 and end in September. OSHA officers are not focusing on employee living conditions, or immigration status.

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