Farm work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the US, as anyone who’s farmed or lived around farming country can tell you. It’s brutal work with long hours for farmers and labourers alike, whether it’s a small family farm with no employees or a massive industrial spread. 10-14 hour days, every day, in all kinds of weather extremes, driving all kinds of vehicles. In 2011, 26.1 fatalities were reported for every 1,000 farm workers. Few jobs (fishing, logging, piloting, to be specific) are more dangerous than farming, especially for undocumented immigrants, who typically work with fewer safety precautions and have less access to safety education.
What’s more shocking, however, is that new research shows the government has woefully underreported the rate of nonfatal injuries in farm labour. Nonfatal injuries are by no means nonserious. They can result in permanent disability, chronic illness, and a shortened lifespan, with a radically reduced quality of life. They can ruin lives, destroy families, and lead to considerable social and financial hardship — especially for immigrants who have access to far fewer resources than those who are in the US legally, particularly when it comes to seeking compensation and assistance to address the costs of treatment, recovery, and unemployment.
Studies like this need to be done to provide hard evidence from neutral parties on the issues, but their results are hardly a surprise to anyone involved. Everyone in the farming community knows that injury rates are much, much higher than official statistics can even begin to hope to accommodate, and those who care about the welfare of farmworkers are also aware of the mismatch between the supposedly correct rates put forward by agencies like the BLS and the actuality of the situation on the ground. This is one reason why advocates for farmworkers have pushed for comprehensive research and have struggled to raise awareness about workplace injuries.
This study shows that the government understated injuries by 77%. That is not a typographical error. 77%. Why is there such a big mismatch between the numbers, and how can we fix it? This is actually a pretty easy question to answer: the government relies on data from the BLS, and nowhere else. The Davis team that conducted this important study examined the National Agricultural Workers Survey and other sources, and they also took a look at small farms, migrant workers, and undocumented workers, all of whom can be harder to track. Arguably, they’re even harder to track when you don’t want to track them, which brings us to the second issue: the solution, and how to get more accurate statistics for farm-related injuries.
The solution requires acknowledging that accurate statistics for all workers are important, and that this is a goal we should be collectively working towards. It also includes recognising the worth and value of all human beings, including undocumented and migrant workers who might be more difficult to track, but equally important. And it requires the use of multiple sources, including organisations and canvassers who are trusted in the community, to narrow down statistics from a variety of sources. BLS statistics rely heavily on what is reported by farms themselves and what makes its way into claim forms, and many injuries are covered up and concealed under pressure from supervisors, which means these statistics are, as has been illustrated here, extremely flawed.
Worker welfare organizations like the BLS should be concerned about the high rate of injuries in farm environments. This points to systemic safety problems that are not being addressed adequately by OSHA inspectors and regulations, and suggests that more supervision and control over farm environments is needed to protect workers, particularly young people and undocumented immigrants. The earlier officially reported level of injuries and deaths was unacceptably high, which makes this even worse.
Farming shouldn’t have to be dangerous. While some risks will always remain due to the nature of the work and the environment, there are measures available to make it less risky, and these should be used. Workers should be trained in basic personal safety and provided with the equipment they need, like respirators when they’re working with hazardous chemicals, and sturdy boots for dealing with livestock. They should be offered shade and respite from heat during those 90+ degree days in California’s Central Valley, where they’re currently expected to work in insufferable and highly hazardous conditions day after day harvesting crops in the summer.
Farm equipment should be built safer, and designed to be both safe and efficient, to remove incentives for aftermarket modifications that remove, disable, or modify safety features. Farmworkers, and farmers, should be earning enough money that they don’t have to take risks due to poor finances; they should have options for shorter days, days off, bringing in second shifts of workers to assist them with farm tasks that they can’t finish on their own. And when workers are injured, they should have prompt access to high-quality care as well as extended therapeutic treatments and unemployment compensation while they recover.
The reason the government has poor statistics on farm-related injuries is because it wants to have poor statistics on farm-related injuries. That’s an active choice, and one the government didn’t have to make, but it did, in the interest of keeping industrial agriculture happy and concealing the true cost of cheap produce. How much blood is on your tomatoes?
Image: The Hat, Dick Jensen, Flickr.