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Danger on the farm: What’s putting workers at such high risk?


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Christine CookeThe Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks agriculture as the third most dangerous industry to work in, after construction and transportation. In this episode of Unconfined, North Carolina-based journalist Christina Cooke paints a picture of how workers get injured, maimed, or die while working in facilities with large animals. Despite being trampled and gored, dying of asphyxiation in grain bins, or drowning in manure pits, these workers remain mostly invisible—and grossly under-protected by the agency that’s supposed to look out for their safety. Christina helps us understand what’s behind this deadly negligence. 




The Roadblock to Protecting Farm Animal Workers  


By Christine Grillo                                                                                                                                                             Subscribe to Host Notes

As a suburbia-raised, white-collar American, I’ve been tempted to believe that “working with animals” sounds pretty nice. Cows are fluffy! Pigs are smart! But people who are employed in animal agriculture facilities have a different understanding of what it means. Hogs can weigh up to 300 pounds, and cows come in at more than half a ton. Moving them around and taking care of them can be dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks agriculture as the third most dangerous industry to work in, after construction and transportation. 

The ways that animal agriculture workers can get injured is gruesome. Some are trampled or gored, and others are pushed around in ways that cause significant injury. As if that’s not bad enough, some workers die from asphyxiation inside of grain bins, and others have died by drowning in the massive manure pits that are charmingly called “lagoons.”

Christina Cooke, a journalist based in North Carolina, makes it her business to investigate how these workers are being injured, and, just as importantly, why they aren’t being protected in some of the same ways that people in other dangerous occupations are protected. (Christina’s 2022 article on the topic was part of a Civil Eats series that won a prestigious James Beard award for excellent journalism.) The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, offers hundreds of protections for people employed in, say, construction, or transport and warehousing. But thanks to a loophole created in 1976, animal agriculture workers slip through the cracks, and OSHA isn’t able to safeguard their health and safety. 

The loophole is a rider that was attached to OSHA’s budget 48 years ago, with the intention of protecting owners of small farms from oversight that would be unnecessary and burdensome. The rider states that OSHA is not allowed to spend money on investigating injuries or deaths that occur on “small farms,” which are defined as having fewer than 10 employees (who are not family). But this exemption, while possibly well intended in 1976, has created a world of hurt. With so much advanced automation of farm operations, farms can be quite large, with thousands of animals, while still employing fewer than 10 people. Currently, 96 percent of all farms in the United States qualify as small farms, because they have fewer than 10 employees. That’s a lot of workers—probably around 700,000—who are slipping through the cracks. The “crack” is more like a chasm. 

Every year since 1976, the rider has been renewed. In the last few years, Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut and a ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, has been trying to get the rider removed. She’s managed to get the House to pass a budget without the rider, but the Senate nixed it. With consistent pushback from the agricultural lobby, the rider is a “third rail” issue, too controversial for most politicians to discuss. Previous attempts by other politicians to remove the rider have failed. 

In this episode, Christina digs into the nuances of this issue and tells us more about who the workers are, who’s advocating for them, and how it’s going.

For more podcasts that explore the animal agriculture industry, check out Tom Philpott’s interview with Magaly Licolli, director of Venceremos, a worker-led organization that advocates for the human rights of poultry workers. You may also want to listen to episodes of What You’re Eating, a FoodPrint podcast, about “Big Pork” and “Cheap Chicken.”

This report by The Center for a Livable Future on “Public Health, Immigration Reform, and Food System Change” provides great information on the health impacts, injuries, and hazards faced by farmworkers. And even though this series of Unconfined focuses on terrestrial agriculture, this research in the Journal of Agromedicine contains relevant information about the analogous hazards faced by aquaculture workers. 

In Host Notes, the voices behind Unconfined podcast deliver additional context to supplement our interviews. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future or the Johns Hopkins University.