Randy Vasquez died in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable, drowning in a pit of cow manure.
His death not only robbed a large family of a father and breadwinner but raises questions about drug use by farm workers and possibly will lead to new regulations on the state’s dairy industry, centered in the Yakima Valley.
A full explanation of the cause of Vasquez’s death may never be public because of a state law that limits disclosure of details in industrial accidents.
But this much is known: Randy Vasquez, 27, had methamphetamine in his system when he was found the morning of Feb. 25 this year inside a front loader submerged in the manure lagoon at Riverview Ranch Dairy in Mabton.
“Definitely not enough to cause his death but there was some methamphetamine in his system,” Jack Hawkins, the Yakima County coroner who presided over the autopsy and toxicology screen, said earlier this year.
Hawkins declined to elaborate and state law does not require disclosure of either the investigative details or the toxicology results to the public.
Earlier this month, the Yakima Herald-Republic obtained a copy of the state Department of Labor and Industries’ 70-page investigation report from the Washington Farm Bureau, which represents Riverview in a state-sanctioned safety incentive program. While the toxicology results are redacted, ranch owners and the Farm Bureau representatives believe the document proves the dairy was not at fault.
Two witnesses interviewed after the accident, the dairy owner and manager, said Vasquez drove his loader into an area he wasn’t supposed to. Their representatives say they believe substance abuse contributed to the accident.
“We believe that there was some impairment upon the decedent,” Jeff Lutz, the Farm Bureau safety director who represented the dairy, said during a Sept. 3 Labor and Industries hearing in Kennewick.
Nubia Guajardo, Vasquez’s longtime girlfriend and mother of his three children, declined to discuss the drug allegation but argued dairies are dangerous places to work.
The Washington dairy industry has seen 11 deaths since 1998, according to Labor and Industries. Overall, dairy employees get hurt or sick at a rate just a little higher than agriculture overall but less often than construction workers.
Since the accident, Guajardo has become a spokeswoman for the United Farm Workers Union as the group lobbies throughout the nation for safer working conditions at dairies, especially those that supply Darigold.
The cause gives Guajardo a sense of purpose and her boyfriend’s death meaning, she said.
“It makes me feel better that another family won’t have to go through what I went through,” she said. “Other children are not going to be left without a dad.
Guajardo, 29, recalled Vasquez as an attentive, playful father, even though he often complained of fatigue from work. He worked at Riverview since September 2014 and was on the graveyard shift when he died.
His weariness from work reminded her of her father, Alberto Ayala, who worked on a dairy for 25 years.
After Vasquez died, Guajardo asked her father to quit his job. He did and now works with his wife, Juventina Ayala, in orchards.
“I was afraid that what happened to Randy might happen to him,” Guajardo said.
Guajardo and Vasquez met about five years ago and moved in with her parents in Sunnyside several months later. The couple had been searching for a house of their own when Vasquez died, Guajardo said.
Vasquez had been hurt at Riverview before.
In January, a bucket of cleaning solvent splashed into his eyes, sending him to the hospital and causing him to miss three days of work, Guajardo said. The state accident report made reference to Vasquez’s eye injury on Jan. 12 but said he missed no work because of it.
The incident did not involve Labor and Industries, which had no record of previous safety complaints or fatal accidents or injuries requiring hospitalization at Riverview.
Though Guajardo declined to share details she considered “personal,” she did not deny her boyfriend’s drug use. “The tests don’t lie, right?” she said, referring to the autopsy and toxicology screen.
Stimulant abuse among farmworkers has been studied and documented some, though researchers say more is needed.
A little more than one-quarter of Florida farm workers surveyed said they used unprescribed antidepressants and stimulants, according to a 2014 article about a small study about Latino self-medication in Frontiers in Public Health. And those drugs were on the low end of use compared to unprescribed allergy medicine at 76 percent and antibiotics at 66 percent.
Indira Trejo, a United Farm Workers Union organizer from Tacoma, frequently hears rumors about drug use among farm workers in Washington, though she almost never is able to substantiate them because employees are nervous about ratting out their friends or worry about retaliation.
Riverview Ranch has started drug screening employees since the accident, owner John Banks said in a text message. He has referred all other questions to Lutz.
Lutz suspects Guajardo may get her wish for safer dairies in the wake of Vasquez’s death.
Riverview already has placed guardrails or fences around its lagoons, as mandated by Labor and Industries. Other dairies may start doing the same.
“Do I see that coming?” Lutz said. “Yeah, I do. I see that coming.”
Dan Wood, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, isn’t so sure.
He encourages all dairy owners to review their safety strategies, especially training programs, in the wake of any injury at any farm, just as good drivers would check their speed after witnessing a crash on an icy road.
However, Vasquez’s death was unusual, he said.
“This was a rare circumstance,” Wood said. “I’ve never heard of a death like this before, so I don’t know if this indicates a lack of safety standards.”
Calling Vasquez’s death a tragedy, “it doesn’t necessarily translate that the entire industry needs sweeping changes,” he said.
The United Farm Workers Union is seeking improved working conditions and wants to start with Darigold.
The Seattle-based farmer-owned cooperative, also known as the Northwest Dairy Association, is far and away the largest milk producer in the Northwest, representing 313 of Washington’s 437 dairies. Riverview is among them.
The company has 12 plants, including one in Sunnyside that’s expanding, employing more than 1,400 workers and processing more than 8 billion pounds of milk, according to the firm’s annual report.
The union has been seeking changes at Darigold dairies for years, using allegations of animal and worker abuse from anonymous employees to raise support for wage increases and better working conditions. After Vasquez died, Guajardo became a face and voice to the union’s cause.
“Nubia has added her voice because all the other workers are afraid of being fired,” Trejo said.
The organization gathered 30,000 signatures on petitions seeking talks with Darigold company officials but were refused, Trejo said.
Earlier this month, Guajardo traveled the country with Trejo and other organizers, sharing her story over loudspeakers and presenting the same petitions to the corporate offices of Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and other major Darigold buyers on a national demonstration campaign, trying to convince them to pressure Darigold.
“We want to talk to Darigold about how they will prevent more accidents,” Trejo said.
None of the firms has made any policy changes. McDonald’s, the first stop on the tour, locked the doors in Chicago but Wal-Mart and Kroger both sent representatives down to meet with the union representatives, Trejo said.
Darigold officials have spoken to union representatives since Vasquez’s death, said Sarah Taydas, the company’s director of corporate communications. However, they believe the accident was an “anomaly.”
“Our sincere sympathy goes out to the family of Mr. Vasquez,” Taydas said in an emailed statement. “We believe that this accident was truly an anomaly. It is our understanding that the dairy where Mr. Vasquez worked has had a very good safety record.”
Banks, Riverview’s owner, appealed the state’s fines of $6,800 on the grounds that investigators treated one violation as three and referenced industry standards that he believes don’t apply to dairies. The state then pared back the penalties to $2,200.
The fines — both the original and the reduced amount — are appalling to Guajardo.
“That’s how much a life meant to them?” she said. “That’s not right.”
State officials and dairy representatives argue, of course not. “A man’s life is incalculable,” Lutz said.
The level of the fine — any workplace safety fine — is based on a complicated rubric of exposure, number of employees and farm safety history, according to state labor officials. The price would have been the same if no one died.
“Civil penalties that DOSH (Division of Occupational Safety and Health, part of Labor and Industries) imposes are not based on the occurrence of a fatality,” Jeanne Henke, a regional compliance manager for DOSH, wrote in a June 26 letter to Anna Fonseca, Vasquez’s mother.
That reasoning doesn’t fly with Guajardo.
“If someone didn’t die, they wouldn’t be getting fined,” she said. “Somebody had to die for them (state investigators) to actually go and find out what was wrong.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of deaths that have occurred at dairies since 1998.