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OSHA Violations Do Not Always Apply To The Farming Industry

Many people don’t realize that working in agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. The agriculture industry ranks third among all occupations in fatal injuries, trailing only behind construction and warehousing. Working in large animal feeding operations is incredibly hazardous and another reason our current food system isn’t doing anyone any favors. 

The people working for Big Ag are also essential workers. For the vast majority of Americans that aren’t getting their food from smaller local farms, ag workers are essential cogs in the machine that puts food – particularly animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy – on grocery store shelves. Whether you agree or disagree with how our current food system is set up, if these workers disappeared tomorrow, we simply wouldn’t have a way to feed most of the country. 

So while we do need to make progress towards changing the food system as a whole, we also need to acknowledge that those changes will not happen overnight. The least we can do for now is provide these workers the protection they deserve given the nature of their jobs. 

This is where you would expect the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to step in. OSHA was created in 1970 to oversee worker safety and has hundreds of standards to protect workers in other industries like construction. But for workers in agriculture, the protections are few and nowhere near sufficient. 

OSHA violations can only apply to operations eligible for OSHA oversight

How can that be? It turns out that Federal OSHA protections don’t apply to workers on farms with ten or fewer workers. This is due to a 46-year-old budget provision intended to protect small family farms. The problem is that as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have become more efficient over time, these vast operations have required fewer workers. This has allowed 96% of animal-ag operations in the U.S to fall exempt from OSHA oversight today. 

That’s right. A CAFO that houses at least 1,000 cows, 2,500 hogs, or 125,00 chickens most likely requires ten or fewer workers, meaning those workers are exempt from OSHA violations protection. Even when a worker is severely injured or killed on a “farm” with ten or fewer workers, OSHA is prohibited from investigating.

One story from this article talks about a man working at a dairy that was trampled by a bull and almost lost his vision after his face hit a metal rail separating two cow stalls. The man had to sit and wait for the owner of his farm to finish milking the rest of the cows before he took him to the hospital. So the man took a rag dipped in the iodine solution used to disinfect cow teats for milking and sat there bleeding. He had no recourse to seek compensation under OSHA for the violations. 

Consider buying local, instead

The key takeaway? It is uncomfortable to think about all the hidden costs associated with some of the food we buy at our grocery store. Buying from local farms or brands that you know are raising food the right way may seem more expensive or less convenient, but if you think about the hidden costs that come with food grown in our current system, it makes the decision of what to buy and where to buy from a little easier. 

Changing our food system will not happen overnight, but it will also never happen if we wait for policymakers to change it. The change needs to come from you and me, the educated consumers that care about our health, animal welfare, and the health of the workers responsible for putting food on our grocery store shelves.

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