The death of a dairy farm worker in Mabton last spring has spurred labor activists and some lawmakers to push for increased safety protections, but the industry says that accident doesn’t warrant new regulations.
The bill introduced in Olympia last week would require safety trainings and random inspections, and would increase penalties for safety violations and strengthen anti-retaliation protections for dairy workers.
“We can do more for safety and we can do more for our dairy workers,” said lead sponsor Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle, at a Monday news conference. “We need to think long and hard about how an industry that’s been left out of a lot of protections for workers can catch up.”
The proposal has the support of 15 other Democrats, along with the United Farm Workers and the Washington State Labor Council. Walkinshaw declined to speak with the Herald-Republic about the bill.
“For so long, our dairy farm workers have been a silent voice in our community,” said co-sponsor Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, at a Monday news conference. “It’s important that we make sure they have safety they need, and make sure they have whistle-blower protection without retaliation.”
But Dan Wood, director of the Washington Dairy Federation, says it is bad policy to single out his industry for additional regulations when there is no evidence they are needed.
“The notion that we are lacking safety requirements is false; we already have 550 pages of workplace safety regulations for agriculture,” Wood said.
He said nothing in the bill would have prevented the death of 27-year-old Randy Vasquez, who drowned after driving a front-end loader into a manure lagoon during his graveyard shift at Riverview Ranch Dairy in Mabton last February.
The case is complicated by the fact that the coroner found methamphetamine in Vasquez’s system, but the details of how much, and therefore how impaired he may have been at the time of the accident, were never disclosed.
“It’s unfortunate that somebody died, but if it had happened on a highway, we would be talking about a drug problem, not re-engineering the highway,” Wood said. “People are trying to take advantage of what happened to blame the dairies, but nothing in that bill would have prevented someone on drugs from harming themselves.”
A state investigation after Vasquez’s death found three serious violations: that the lagoon lacked warning signs and fences on one side and that rescue equipment was not stored nearby.
Riverview Ranch, which had no previous safety violations, was initially fined $6,800. But after the owner appealed, saying that the three penalties should be considered as one, the fine was cut to $2,200.
Erik Nicholson, United Farm Workers national vice president, said the number of injuries at the state’s dairies are “appalling” and on the rise.
“The death of Randy Vasquez was a wake-up call to us,” Nicholson said at the news conference. “Someone is killed on a Washington state dairy every 16 months.”
According to the Department of Labor and Industries, 11 people have died working on dairy farms since 1998 in incidents that include tractor and heavy equipment accidents, hay bale collapse and one case of trampling. Vasquez is the only dairy worker to die on the job in the past five years.
But are those fatalities a sign of rampant risks or fairly typical for physical labor such as agriculture or construction?
Statewide, 56 people died on the job in 2015, including 12 falls, 12 vehicle accidents, six logging accidents, and five people shot while at work.
A spokeswoman for Labor and Industries said that because the number of fatalities are so small for most industries, it’s difficult to use the figures to compare or look for long-term trends.
Instead, the state prefers to use the rate of serious accidents that result in employees missing work when evaluating the safety risks of different industries.
Using that metric, the dairy industry’s injury rate is 2.7 per 100 full-time workers, slightly above agriculture as a whole at 2.45, but below construction, at 3.3 injuries a year per 100 workers.
Wood said that rate does not justify creating additional Labor and Industries programs to target dairies with surprise inspections. Currently, the agency inspects all employers when there is an accident or if there is a complaint, said spokeswoman Elaine Fischer.
Wood also said the special whistleblower protections in the bill go too far and create a presumption of guilt on the part of dairy owners.
“If someone complains, on Facebook or in a formal complaint, and then they don’t get rehired or promoted, that’s assumed to be retaliation,” Wood said. “It creates an incentive for complaints to trigger protection, and that’s backwards from good practices.”
The dairy industry is already subject to the state’s general discrimination protections in the Industrial Safety and Health Act. But there are still reports of workers being told that they will lose their jobs if they file injury claims or safety concerns, said Joe Kendo, government affairs director with the Washington Labor Council.
Under the current rules, “it’s also very hard for employees to prove retaliation,” he said. “This shouldn’t be an undue burden on employers, if you have just cause to fire somebody, it should be easy to say we fired them because of this reason, even if they filed a recent injury claim.”
Raising the damages a worker can seek for retaliation should act as a deterrent to employers and make it easier for workers to get legal representation, Kendo said.
Lastly, the bill would raise the penalties for willful violations of safety standards for dairy farms from the standard $5,000 to $7,000 and sets a special $10,000 penalty for violations that result in the death of a dairy worker, payable to the employee’s family.
Kendo said it’s unlikely the bill will find support in the Republican-controlled Senate this session, but that it’s important to get people talking about this issue.
“If the dairy industry is willing to take some steps to improve safety, it’s a good way to reduce the drama of legislation,” Kendo said. “I do want to point out that we reached out (to the industry) before the session and were rebuffed.”
If adopted, the bill would cost Labor and Industries $1.2 million in 2017 and about $4 million in future bienniums, according to the state fiscal impact report.