OEHS From Farm to Table
Lula and Gillsville are small towns on opposite sides of a county line in northeastern Georgia, an antique land that I call home, where the sun burns hotter, the tea is sweeter, and the dirt beneath your feet is colored red as if you were on Mars. It's a place where most of the farmers are small, their larger animals are usually free ranging, and they eat grass, hay, nuts, and grain. It's the heart of chicken country, where long houses the length of a football field show themselves at every turn.
After spending part of my life there, and eventually coming to Washington, D.C., to pursue a career in government and government relations, I started to wonder how farm workers—and, by extension, consumers—are being protected by the government. It's an open secret in the agriculture business that labor shortages have led many large farms to hire undocumented workers. In recent years, the United States has seen a large influx of unaccompanied child migrants who have increasingly been found working in industrial and agricultural jobs with little regard for safety and child labor laws, and the Department of Labor has been sounding the alarm. OSHA obviously can't protect people it doesn't know about, and that is a sad reality we face here in the U.S. AIHA's Safety Matters resources are available to any young workers with concerns or questions regarding their workplaces, and more information is available from the Safety Matters Center. The agriculture processing business is in dire need of occupational and environmental health and safety professionals. If we pay more attention to this glaring blind spot, we can create more sustainable, higher-quality farms for the future.
Agriculture workers face some of the most dangerous working conditions in our society. As explained on the NIOSH website, 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that farm workers experienced a fatality rate of 20 deaths per 100,000 workers, compared to a rate of 3.6 deaths per 100,000 workers for all U.S. industries. In the industrial meat farm industry, including but not limited to the hog business that dominates North Carolina, workers are exposed to varying levels of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane, among other hazards, including drug-resistant bacteria that cause great physical harm to workers. Some hog houses are packed with thousands of hogs, and the waste silos below the house are emptied sporadically, sometimes leaving a buildup that generates more toxic gas than the ventilation can handle. The buildup is drained to an open-air "waste lagoon" in the backyard and is sometimes sprayed across the adjacent land. This practice occurs at a type of large-scale farm known as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). Workers in a CAFO who are not properly protected can see varying health consequences (PDF), including high blood pressure, conjunctivitis, and respiratory tract irritation, among other more serious conditions. For workers in meat processing, as recently as 2018, The Guardian reported an average of two amputations a week in meatpacking plants across the U.S.
How did we get here? One answer is that laws haven't caught up with the large industrial farms and processing plants required to meet the demands of a growing nation. EPA is tasked with regulating part of the problem—the waste lagoons and emissions of toxic gases—under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. However, in most states, EPA's historically passive approach and the sheer number of farms have allowed for large gaps in data and sometimes no data at all (PDF). This means EPA lacks even the basic data it needs to enforce regulatory standards on most CAFOs. Making this data available and instituting stricter reporting and transparency would help EPA do its job.
It is also necessary to close loopholes that allow large companies to divide up workforces below the threshold of ten nonfamily employees required for OSHA regulation. This rule, implemented through a special budget rider to protect small farms from overregulation, was never intended to apply to large companies. The threshold itself could use some attention, by either lowering or crafting entirely new carve-outs and definitions; by any reasonable standard, a CAFO is not a "small farm." Until the budget rider is fixed, OSHA is unable to provide even the most basic protections to workers, particularly undocumented workers. Lastly, a revised H-2A visa program that allows our labor demand to be met through legal means is imperative to protecting workers and making sure that the proper authorities are correctly informed and able to protect and provide guaranteed legal rights to workers.
OEHS professionals are desperately needed in this forgotten industry in America. The status quo is not good enough for the hard-working, blue-collar folks who literally put food on the table for our families. Why should they have to risk their lives to do so? I encourage you to reach out to local farmers and get to know their businesses, meet the workers who take on the daunting task of feeding America every day, listen to their concerns, and have a constructive conversation about how you can help or what policies or reforms are needed. If we grow our presence and engagement in agriculture policy and industry, we can make cleaner, safer farms and better products for all our communities to enjoy. Working together, we can find creative policy solutions for worker and animal safety and ensure a better food future through common-sense OEHS standards, from farm to table.
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