Alberto Navarro Munoz had been working on the farm for only two weeks when he encountered one of the most gruesome hazards that a dairy worker can face. His tractor tipped over into a pit of cow manure, submerging the Mexican native under several feet of a “loose thick somewhat liquid-like substance,” according to the police report documenting his death in southern Idaho.
Another immigrant laborer jumped in to try to save Munoz, but told authorities “there was nothing he could do.” Munoz, whose body was later retrieved by the fire department, died of traumatic asphyxiation.
Munoz’s death, which occurred in the nearby town of Shelley last September, was one of two fatal accidents last year involving dairymen who either choked or drowned in pits of cow manure. Another laborer from Mexico died last month after he was crushed by a skid loader, used to move feed and manure.
The deaths have rattled Idaho’s dairy industry as well as local immigrant communities that do the bulk of the work producing nearly 15 billion pounds of milk annually on the industrial-sized farms in the state’s southern prairie. As farms have transitioned from family operations into big businesses involving thousands of cows and massive machinery, new safety concerns have emerged.
Agricultural workers suffer fatal on-the-job injuries at a very high rate — far higher than police officers and more than twice the rate of construction workers in 2015, the last year for which comprehensive records are available.
Farms have become increasingly reliant on immigrant workers, who often have minimal training or experience dealing with dangerous equipment and large animals. That has left farm laborers especially vulnerable to workplace deaths, such as being electrocuted, crushed by tractors, kicked by a heifer or beat up by a bull.
Despite injury rates far exceeding other industries, the agriculture industry receives relatively light federal oversight of worker safety. Regulations established when farms were more likely to be small, family operations haven’t kept up with the rapidly consolidating industry. Historically, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has taken a hands-off approach, conducting inspections when there is only a report of a serious accident or fatality.
The agency imposed fines of about $5,000 on the farms involved in the manure pond deaths. Most farms with fewer than 11 employees don’t have to report such incidents.
Particularly on dairy farms, where workers care for 1,500-pound animals that together generate more waste in a day than a medium-sized city, this creates an underclass of workers who spend hours hauling excrement but are largely unprotected by labor safety standards.
There were 6,700 injuries on dairy farms with more than 11 employees in 2015 — a rate more than double the average for private industries. On those farms, 43 laborers died.
“Workers are extremely worried, and there is a consensus that government is not doing enough, and neither are employers, in ensuring safety precautions,” said Benjamin Reed, who hosts a Spanish call-in radio program aimed at local agricultural workers in Idaho. “Some of these farms are dirty, nasty and full of flies and there are a lot of these manure ponds filled with fecal matter and urine.”
In Idaho, dairy industry leaders are rushing to implement new statewide training protocols aimed largely at its Spanish-speaking workforce. About 90 percent of the state’s 8,100 dairy farmworkers were born outside the United States. Nationwide, a little more than half of the dairy farms’ 150,000 employees are immigrants, according to the National Milk Producers Federation.
“We won’t shy away from the fact that those fatalities provided a wake-up call . . . that we need to be more robust in safety training,” said Rick Naerebout, director of operations for the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. “Many employees now didn’t grow up in the industry, either in the U.S. or Mexico, so they don’t have the same exposure to working with animals or working with machinery that employees had in the past.”
The Idaho Dairymen’s Association has budgeted $250,000 to train the state’s dairy workforce. The initiative began earlier this month when Westpoint Farms here in Jerome, Idaho, used an iPad to give workers a tutorial in Spanish outlining best practices for working with cows and navigating common hazards on a farm.
Owner Tony Vander Hulst needs 65 employees to make sure his 5,500 Holstein cattle are fed and milked twice a day, so they can keep producing their daily 500,000 pounds of milk — enough to fill six tanker trucks.
But a big chunk of his staff’s job is dealing with waste from the animals. Multiple times a day, trucks equipped with suction equipment pass through barns to collect it. Solids are heaped into piles to be dried and used as fertilizer. The liquid remains are diverted into a smelly, 15-acre, 10-foot deep pond.
Farmers refer to these pits as “green lagoons,” and at Vander Hulst’s farm, seagulls and cranes were landing on it to feast on the proteins.
The lagoons pose a major danger for employees who must work around them.
At another farm in February 2016, Ruperto Vazquez-Carrera died after he drove a truck into a manure pond at a farm near Twin Falls, Idaho, according to the Jerome County Sheriff’s report. Snowmelt had flooded the lagoon, making it difficult for the 37-year-old to distinguish the road from a steep drop off.
Although they remain relatively rare, similar accidents have been reported from coast to coast. Some involved multiple deaths during failed rescue attempts.
Five people, including four members of a family, also died while working on a manure pit in 2007 in Rockingham County, Va. They were overcome by methane gas.
“Drowning usually doesn’t come because they can’t swim,” said Jessica Culpepper, an attorney at Public Justice, a law firm that advocates for workers and consumers. “Instead, they hit that level where gases are so noxious, it renders them unconscious.”
Indira Trejo, global impact coordinator for the United Farm Workers, said the danger of manure lagoons is just one of numerous threats facing dairy workers in Idaho. She said her organization has received scores of complaints from dairymen who say they are overworked and have limited access to safety training and bathrooms.
“All they want is our work and don’t care if we get training or not,” one immigrant dairy worker said through an interpreter. He asked not to be identified because he feared employer retribution.
“We know if you fall into a lagoon, the moment you step in, you disappear,” he said.
In 2012, OSHA launched unannounced inspections and more rigorous reviews of licensed dairy farms in Wisconsin. Two years later, the agency revealed a similar program in New York.
But dairy operators said there has been little difference.
“It’s not even on our radar,” said John Holevoet, director of government affairs for Wisconsin’s Dairy Business Association. “They were not very frequent, even at their peak, and now it has really fallen off. I don’t think there has been a visit in six or nine months.”
When asked how it plans to monitor conditions for farmworkers, OSHA responded in a written statement: “OSHA is dedicated to enforcing safety and health laws that apply to agricultural operations, and when a fatality or serious incident occurs, or when OSHA receives a referral or a worker complaint, it will conduct rigorous inspections and take appropriate measures.”
William E. Field, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University, said farmers are well-reasoned to be skittish about increased government oversight. In recent years, many have felt under siege amid blowback from regulators and consumers over issues such as genetically modified food, pesticide application and nutrient runoff.
Culpepper, the Public Justice attorney who has extensively studied the dairy industry, said OSHA and other federal regulators should treat large diaries as any other industrial, polluting business. She notes a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency study that estimated 2,500 dairy cows generate the same daily waste as a city with 411,000 residents.
“Think how a paint manufacturer or a coal manufacturer is required to deal with their waste,” Culpepper said. “The sooner we start treating dairies as almost like an industrial waste, the safer people will be.”
If oversight were to expand, Idaho dairy farmers and their lobbyists say they’d want to work closely with regulators to limit the financial impact on an industry already battered by fluctuating markets and expensive machinery.
“OSHA would be a brand new thing for them,” said Bob Naerebout, Rick’s father and executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. “It’s fear of the unknown, which is why we want to get them prepared.”