Reporter Highlights Dangers of Neglecting Farm Safety at AIHce EXP

​By Kay Bechtold

Minneapolis Convention Center (May 21, 2019)—Investigative reporter Jeffrey Meitrodt of Minneapolis' Star Tribune became the nineteenth journalist to present the annual Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture yesterday at AIHce EXP 2019. Meitrodt’s reporting behind his award-winning series of articles "Tragic Harvest" and its impact on farm safety in Minnesota spurred AIHA’s Social Concerns Committee, which sponsors the lecture, to invite him to speak at the conference. The four-part article series—which the Star Tribune first began publishing in October 2015—examines a troubling surge in farm deaths that went unnoticed by state and federal officials charged with overseeing workplace safety. Meitrodt’s series showed how, in Minnesota and other Midwestern states, most fatal accidents were occurring on small farms that were exempt from federal regulations because they employed fewer than 11 workers. 

“It was up to [farmers] to decide what’s a safe practice and what’s not, and they were making a lot of tragic decisions,” Meitrodt told a packed room in the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Some farmers worked in grain bins without harnesses. They often operated tractors that were prone to tipping over. Others made repairs to farm machinery while it was still operating.

Meitrodt often reads government reports to get ideas for his articles—“to see where the problems are,” he said. When he came across the 2012 Minnesota Workplace Safety Report, he noticed that farms were generating a quarter of workplace deaths in Minnesota, and there seemed to be no awareness that these fatalities were even an issue. So he began gathering raw materials for his articles. During this process, he traveled to 70 different sheriff’s departments around the state, asking them to provide everything they had related to the deaths of these farmers.

“In some cases, it took them about a month to figure out that it was public data,” he said. “Some offices had never gotten a public records request before.”

Meitrodt sought answers to questions such as, how did the farm worker die? Was it a work-related accident? Were they working by themselves? Were there witnesses to the event? Could help have arrived in time? If using a machine, what kind was it? Did the state investigate? He also spent approximately three months contacting family members of the deceased. Meitrodt recalled that some of them were very upset to receive these phone calls, while others remained angry about what had happened.

“When we explained what our premise was—that people were dying because farm workers were exempt from these regulations—people started coming around,” he said. “These are some of the hardest interviews I’ve ever done in my life.”

The Star Tribune series includes an online tool where users can find more information on each death Meitrodt examined as well as obituaries for the farmers killed in workplace accidents. Meitrodt recalled that after the series was published, many readers were upset: “There’s this wave of deaths and injuries, and no one seems to be doing much about it—or [caring] that much about it,” he said.

But in Minnesota, Meitrodt added, politicians are attuned to the stories the newspaper is publishing, which can impact their agenda.

“The next thing you know, they’re changing the law,” Meitrodt said. “For a state that never really talked about a farm safety program, they launched the best tractor rollover program in the country.”

However, work remains to be done.

“I would love to stand up here and [say] that after we ran our series, the number of deaths declined,” he said. “Sadly, that has not changed.”

In 2017, Meitrodt said, the state’s farmers saw the third highest death rate in 15 years. He believes this is partially due to some farmers’ mindsets. For example, he interviewed one woman whose 82-year-old husband died on their farm after he was severely injured in a fall off his tractor. The farmer’s wish, according to his wife, was to “die with his boots on.”

Another factor has to do with the aging of farmers.

“These older farmers are taking so many chances,” Meitrodt told attendees. “A lot of them can’t afford to retire, so they’re pushing the envelope and working at an age it’s no longer safe.”

Actions that industrial hygienists, occupational health and safety professionals, and others can take to reduce farm deaths include raising awareness about farm safety. According to Meitrodt, many farmers aren’t aware that some of the things they do aren’t safe. He also hopes to see public awareness campaigns aimed at older farmers, training, and voluntary safety audits.

Meitrodt joined the Star Tribune in 2009 and specializes in stories involving the collision of business and government regulation. He has led or overseen more than a dozen investigations, including the reckless use of all-terrain vehicles by children and the deadly surge of synthetic drugs. He co-authored a 2013 series about special education that won the National Headliner Award for education writing. Meitrodt is currently working on investigations centered in the business world.

The Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture is named for the political activist Upton Sinclair, who is best known for his 1906 novel The Jungle, which highlighted the horrors of the meat-packing plants in Chicago and led to major health and safety changes in the industry. The lecture series highlights the importance of media in occupational safety and health, involves the public in the cause of occupational safety and health, and recognizes good investigative reporting. A list of previous Upton Sinclair lecturers is available on AIHA’s website.

Kay Bechtold is senior editor of The Synergist.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.