Having laws and regulations in the workplace can help protect employees from being exploited. It can also help employers reduce medical expenses from work injuries, accidents, and from being taken advantage of by employees. With changes in the law, how can employers and employees stay up-to-date with the latest rules? Who ensures that employers comply with the law and provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees?
Unfortunately, there is a lack of law enforcement in the fields. The government has taken the time to develop laws that could protect both workers and employers, but they have failed in educating employers and in enforcing the law to ensure employers and employees comply with the regulations.
Agricultural work in the U.S. has its own unique set of challenges. The nature of this work is extremely dangerous. Farmworkers are constantly exposed to hazardous chemicals, sharp tools, and equipment. Laws have been put in place to protect workers and employers and to reduce workplace fatalities. However, rules are often overlooked and injuries happen as a result of law non-compliance, lack of a safety plan, and/or lack of work knowledge.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in 2017, 416 farmers and farmworkers died from a work-related injury, resulting in a fatality rate of 20.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. Transportation incidents, including tractor rollovers, were the leading cause of death for these farmers and farmworkers. On average, about 100 agricultural workers suffer a lost-work-time injury every day. In 2014, an estimated 12,000 youth were injured on farms; 4,000 of these injuries were due to farmwork.
Through AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs, we have been able to see firsthand the lack of knowledge of the law and, therefore, non-compliance with the law and the accompanying workplace fatalities. During these visits, AFOP staff has taken the time to educate agricultural employers and employees on their responsibilities to comply with the law and to maintain a safe and healthy work environment for all. Through AFOP’s National Farmworker Training Program (NFTP) we offer training, literature, and tools to ensure that workers stay as safe and healthy as possible, even while we ensure employers learn about agricultural laws and compliance through our network of 256 trainers in 30 states.
Work-related illnesses, injuries and even deaths are costly to both employers and employees. A safe and healthy work environment can reduce the financial burden that may occur at the worksite. This is why it is important to enforce the law to benefit both sides. Employers have the solemn duty of providing their employees with a workplace free of all recognized hazards that can cause serious harm to this workforce.
The Extension University of Missouri states on their website that each employee has the duty to comply with safety and health standards and all regulations and orders issued to create a safe workplace. If a standard calls for guards on a machine and the employer provides these guards, then the employee must keep them in place when using the machine. The employer must get the employee to comply with the rules. The employer can discipline employees that choose not to comply. However, the employee is not subject to fines for not complying; the employer is.
Employers’ responsibilities include:
- Providing a safe and healthy working environment that is free of recognized hazards likely to cause serious injury or death.
- Ensuring that employees do not use defective or unsafe tools and equipment, including tools and equipment that may be furnished by the employee.
- Furnishing and requiring employees to use any safety devices and safety guards that are needed to control recognized hazards. All agricultural methods, operations and processes must be designed to promote the safety and health of employees.
- Prohibiting the removal, displacement, damage or destruction of any safety device, safeguard, or notice of warning.
- Prohibiting anyone from interfering with the use of any safety device, method or process adopted for the protection of any employee.
- Implementing a written Accident Prevention Program (APP), or safety plan.
- Implementing a Chemical Hazard Communication (Hazcom) program.
- Providing, and ensuring employees understand, job-specific safety and health training
Without a doubt, agricultural employers have a great responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their employees. Employers may establish agricultural safe practices that may align with current laws. AFOP recommends that employers increase their awareness of farming hazards and make a conscious effort to prepare for emergency situations including equipment accidents, chemical exposures, and others. Safe workplace practices can reduce worker fatalities, injuries, and illnesses as well as associated medical costs, compensation insurance premiums, and production lost.
A healthy and safe workplace can improve the morale and productivity of workers. The National Ag Safety Database (NASD) states that employers who strive to create a safety culture in the workplace show employees that they are valued and that working safely plays an important role in creating a successful business.
Farmworkers also have many responsibilities in order to comply with the law, but it is important to recognize they also have rights, including:
- Working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm
- To be trained in a language they understand
- To work on machines that are safe
- To be provided with the required safety gear, such as gloves or a harness and lifeline for fall protection
- To be protected from toxic chemicals
- To request an OSHA inspection and speak to the inspector
- To report an injury or illness and get copies of their medical records
- To see copies of the workplace injury and illness log
- To review records of work-related injuries and illnesses
- To get copies of test results done to find hazards in the workplace
- To receive an orientation on working terms and conditions
- To receive information and training (in a language and vocabulary the worker understands) about workplace hazards, methods to prevent them, and the OSHA standards that apply to their workplace
- To file a complaint asking OSHA to inspect their workplace if they believe there is a serious hazard or that their employer is not following OSHA’s rules. OSHA will keep all identities confidential.
Farmworkers play an essential role in the U.S. agriculture industry. Protecting their wellbeing should be a priority for all, including government, employers, and consumers. As consumers we have the responsibility to purchase produce from fields that provide safe and healthy treatment and fair pay to workers. At AFOP Health & Safety Programs, we continue to work hard to provide occupational health and safety education, resources, and tools for agricultural workers and employers in hopes that no one will suffer from injusticeor a poor workplace environment.
- OSHA Standards for Occupational Safety and Health for Agriculture