It was still dark the morning Ruperto Vazquez-Carrera began his shift at Sunrise Organic Dairy in Boise, Idaho.
It was mid-February 2016. A winter heat wave had melted snow and ice overnight, flooding part of the rural Jerome County farm. A foot of standing water made it hard to tell where the feeding area ended and the deep pond that held the farm’s manure began.
Vazquez-Carrera got into a feed truck to deliver the cows their morning meal. About 5:30 a.m., he called his brother, who also worked at the farm, to warn him about the conditions.
By sunrise, Vazquez-Carrera, a 37-year-old husband and father of six, was dead.
Vazquez-Carrera had mistakenly driven the truck into the manure pond. He managed to get free and he tried to swim back to solid ground. But he was disoriented and swam in the wrong direction, according to the county sheriff. Divers found his body 70 yards from the truck.
It was a kind of death no one wants to happen. Yet it happened again, in Idaho, just seven months later.
A dairy worker in Shelley, south of Idaho Falls, suffocated after driving into a manure pond more than 5 feet deep and being pinned for 30 minutes under the tractor he was driving.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent inspectors to investigate each incident. The agency cited each dairy for failing to provide a safe workplace and fined each $5,000.
The ponds are common at dairies as a way to store manure to prevent it from polluting waterways. The waste can later be used as fertilizer on crops. Neither dairy had fences or barricades to keep workers from driving the wrong way and into the manure pond in the dark, OSHA found. No signs warned employees they were nearing a deep pit of manure.
“Drowning in manure ponds is widely known in the dairy industry,” the inspection reports noted.
Drowning and other manure accidents killed farmworkers in Idaho and at least four other states during the past three years, according to OSHA records.
And that’s just a fraction of the deaths in agriculture, one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S. More than 5,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. died on the job between 2003 and 2011, a death rate seven times higher than average.
The local OSHA office began noticing a “dramatic uptick” in agriculture fatalities in early 2013, and it has persisted, said David Kearns, OSHA area director.
“That raised a flag to us, that there was something happening out there,” he said. “We’re dealing with vulnerable workers in very unique and continually changing situations. … Why we are seeing an uptick, I don’t know.”
‘People just called and called’
There was an outcry from workers in Idaho after Vazquez-Carrera’s death, said Indira Trejo, global impact coordinator for the United Farm Workers of America.
Trejo works in Washington state for the union, which saw a need to help Idaho workers, many of whom are Hispanic. She made the rounds last year on Spanish-speaking radio stations in Southern Idaho.
“People just called and called,” she said. “The biggest need we documented was people had no idea how to go about workers’ comp. Whenever they got in an accident, they got fired, or didn’t know who to call or where to call.”
Since then, she said, she has talked with about 500 farmworkers in Idaho. Here’s what they tell her: Their farms don’t have toilet paper. There is no first aid kit. They lose their jobs or housing if they raise a complaint.
“Now you have this immigration issue on top of them,” Trejo said. “That’s why they don’t speak up, and that’s why the conditions are like this at a lot of farms.”
Other farms treat their workers right. One dairy employee told the Statesman she feels safer at her small farm than she did at a mega-dairy. Even though the small dairy lacks a safety program, there are fewer cattle to dodge.
“But it’s very rare to hear from those folks,” Trejo said.
Workers hurt in Idaho
Because of special rules for small farms, underreporting and a lack of public data in Idaho, there is no way to tally agricultural casualties and debilitating injuries.
The information gap could soon get worse. Congress this spring rolled back an Obama administration rule that allowed OSHA to enforce accident record-keeping by farm and other employers for years instead of months. And the Trump administration has delayed a separate rule that would make farm and other companies’ accident records available to the public online.
The meager data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that men and women who pick fruit, harvest crops, milk cows and work in processing plants in Idaho are injured and killed at a higher rate than in other professions.
Javier Tellez Juarez lost both arms and a leg when his clothes got caught on machinery at a southeastern Idaho farm in the mid-1990s. His case prompted a change in Idaho law to require that farmers to carry workers’ compensation insurance for their laborers. They had been exempt for decades.
Maria Aguirre was one of 29 workers poisoned by pesticides on a Caldwell onion farm in 2005. She told the Associated Press that the poisoning made it painful to eat and left her co-workers, including her mother and brother, with health problems.
“Farmers know that some workers are scared because they’re illegal here, so they can do anything they want,” Aguirre said then.
A longtime employee of Amalgamated Sugar Co., Mario Munoz, got caught in machinery at the company’s Nampa plant in 2009. Munoz, who had been studying to become a medical assistant, was the third person to die at the factory since 1985.
Farmworkers in Marsing, Shelley and Melba have died in recent years after being run over, folded in half, and electrocuted.
Many of those killed are foreign-born. Most of the workers killed on Idaho farms in the past few years were non-English speakers or spoke English as a second language.
“We would characterize those employees as vulnerable workers,” said Jordan Barab, who was deputy assistant secretary of OSHA in the Obama administration and now writes Confined Space, a newsletter about worker safety. “Some of them are undocumented, but even the ones who are documented have come from other countries where, let’s say, the government is not friendly.”
These workers tend to be suspicious of government and unaware that OSHA exists or that they have rights. A complaint can put them at risk of getting fired or deported, Barab said.
“This is a group OSHA has a hard time reaching,” he said.
At Sunrise Organic Dairy in Jerome County, workers did not know about OSHA and were concerned about working near the manure pit the winter Vazquez-Carrera died, according to someone who knew him, who asked not to be identified because of fear of retribution.
“They kind of knew it was dangerous, in the sense that it had snowed in and it was frozen, it was slippery, so people will be scared to do that,” the person said. “Right after (the death), a lot of people quit, because they were scared.”
‘It’s quite traumatic for everybody’
OSHA’s inspection report said Sunrise had not been keeping records of injuries, as required by law. Workers’ compensation records showed “multiple” injuries on the farm in 2015 and 2016, including one just days before the manure drowning, the report said.
Dairy owner Dirk Reitsma told OSHA after the accident that he and his dairy manager had noticed a need to make some changes to the area near the manure pond and had talked about hiring a contractor.
Reitsma declined to speak with the Statesman. He told the Times-News in Twin Falls last year that it was “just a freak accident” and “just a bad deal.” He said Vazquez-Carrera was “a top-notch guy” who worked his way up since being hired about a year earlier.
OSHA said Sunrise must add safety features such as warning signs and fences.
The manure drowning months later in Shelley was the first time a worker had been seriously injured at Diamond 3 Dairy, owner Brian Esplin told the Statesman.
The employee, Alberto Navarro-Munoz, got into a tractor around 4 a.m. one day last September. It was his first job at a dairy, and he was new to driving the tractor. A supervisor watched as he put the vehicle in gear and went forward, headlong into a manure pond. The truck flipped over and pinned him under 3 to 4 feet of manure.
His co-worker ran to get help, but the man was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, according to OSHA.
Esplin said there is now a barricade and a floodlight at the manure pond on his dairy. Workers do not drive feed tractors in that area when it’s dark, he said.
“It’s quite traumatic for everybody, for sure. The guy who was a witness to it was quite upset,” Esplin said. “It haunted my son (the dairy manager) for quite some time. I think it still does, to some degree. For a long time, he could hardly sleep at night.”
Small farms are unregulated
Sunrise Organic Dairy is large, with about 10,000 head of cattle and 60 employees. Diamond 3 Dairy is smaller, with about 1,300 cows and 15 employees. But both are large enough that OSHA had legal authority to investigate the deaths.
A unique exemption in federal worker-safety laws forbids OSHA from inspecting farms that have 10 or fewer employees at all times in the prior 12 months – even if employees die. (Family members are not considered employees.)
Those farms are supposed to keep records and to report work-related deaths and catastrophes. But it’s impossible to know if they do, because OSHA is not allowed to check if they’re complying or to fine them if they’re not.
The exemption kept OSHA from investigating the death of a 36-year-old worker in March at Double Arrow Inc. in Terreton, northwest of Idaho Falls. C.J. Frizzell, a Rexburg father of four with one on the way, died when he was caught in a hay grinder at the farm.
“To have these small farms, which are highly hazardous workplaces, and not to allow OSHA to set foot there, is inexcusable,” Barab said.
Across the border in Washington, a state occupational-safety law makes small farms subject to safety enforcement. In Idaho, there is no extra layer.
“There are dairies where there are only two workers, and they’re milking 1,800 cows,” Trejo said. “This is why the accidents happen and nobody finds out.”
New focus on safety
After the manure deaths, the Idaho Dairymen’s Association heard that OSHA was gearing up to put more resources into enforcement at Idaho dairies.
OSHA’s Idaho office is strapped. It has eight inspectors to cover the state. The AFL-CIO says it would take 208 years for the office to inspect every worksite.
But OSHA has used “local emphasis programs” in Wisconsin and New York to beef up safety at dairy farms. The Idaho office drafted its own version. It would focus on random inspections and more active outreach to dairies and other agricultural businesses. It’s on the back burner until OSHA has a new national director.
The Idaho Dairymen’s Association, the state’s largest dairy trade group, decided to get a head start. With a budget of $200,000 and cooperation from others in the industry, the association is rolling out a safety-training program for Idaho’s 490 dairies. It plans to send out trainers who will act like OSHA inspectors, pointing out everything that needs to be fixed.
“Consumers demand transparency,” said Bob Naerebout, executive director. “They want to have the knowledge that the workers on our dairies are properly trained.”
Some of Idaho’s agribusiness employers have already signed up to partner with OSHA and to open up their operations to greater scrutiny. Among them are Tessenderlo Kerley Inc. in Burley and AMVAC Chemical in Marsing.
Tessenderlo Kerley has 11 employees at its Magic Valley plant, where it makes a soil fumigant called metam sodium. Workers handle hazardous materials regularly.
Treating employees well is part of the company’s culture, and that includes keeping them out of harm’s way, said Steve Sailors, regional plant operations manager.
Workers must attend meetings every two weeks, at which they cover things such as first aid, CPR and respiratory protection. They attend the annual Safety Fest conference to learn new techniques. They take “ownership” of their safety, Sailors said.
“We don’t ask our employees to put themselves at risk,” he said.
AMVAC has 15 full-time employees at its Treasure Valley plant, which makes crop-retention chemicals like those in seed coatings.
“You have to be part of the program,” said Dennis Achey, site manager in Marsing. “You can’t kind of sit on the sidelines. You have to be a willing participant – or, basically, you have to go somewhere where you don’t have to do that. And there are plenty of places like that.”
Both companies said they are saving money on workers’ compensation insurance because their injury rates are much lower than the industry average.
Hospitals see the tragedies
Because so many injuries and deaths are allowed to stay under the radar in agriculture, the Statesman reached out to local doctors to ask what cases they see coming from local farms or agricultural plants, such as the Caldwell seed company where 63-year-old Francisca R. Gomez died in January 2016 after her hair was caught in machinery.
Bill Morgan, a trauma surgeon at Saint Alphonsus Health System, said he sees between three and six injuries a month serious enough to require his skills. About half of those are workers, the other half farmers themselves.
“We don’t see that many deaths, fortunately, but when they do happen, obviously it’s horrific,” he said.
He particularly remembers one worker from a Twin Falls dairy. A bull slammed him against a wall, broke all his ribs on both sides, punctured both his lungs, and ruptured his spleen and liver. “He survived, but it took him months to be able to get back to work,” Morgan said.
Ag workers face one risk urban workers do not: They are farther away from medical care. A traumatic accident is 25 percent more likely to kill you in a rural place than an urban one, Morgan said.
Brian Johns, a Magic Valley-based medical director for occupational health at St. Luke’s Health System, sees patients in a clinic. He rarely sees fatal or gruesome injuries, but he sees plenty of workers in pain – a broken finger from an annoyed cow, a strained back from birthing a calf.
“You’re working outside with animals and big equipment,” he said. “You try to do as much prevention as you can, but sometimes injuries just happen.”
Johns was one of several people who told the Statesman that injuries come with the inherently dangerous job of working on a farm.
“It is hard to say that every injury is preventable, but there are plenty of jobs that are ‘dangerous jobs,’ and there is still no excuse for somebody getting injured,” he said. “For almost any hazard, you can imagine there is a way to eliminate or minimize it. There’s almost no hazard where you can say there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”
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