Advocacy & Activism, Employers & Employment, Health & Safety, OSHA, Work Hazards

Farm Worker Forum: A Season of Tragedy

From TheCity1.com, Edward VanderMeulen, 25 Oct 2011.

Edward VanderMeulen, Morrison, IL, attended a Public Forum on Tuesday, October 25, 2011, and submitted this report to thecity1.com.  He wrote, “The forum was a powerful experience.”

Approximately 65 people representing various backgrounds attended the Farm Worker Safety Forum held at Northern Illinois University on Tuesday evening, October 25, 2011.

Represented were

  • concerned citizens
  • Future Farmers of America (FFA) members
  • attorneys
  • spokespersons from various farm worker and migrant advocate agencies
  • physicians who provide medical care for farm workers
  • representatives from the Mexican Consulate
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
  • Illinois Agriculture Department of Safety and Health
  • Illinois Department of Employment Security.

The forum and the diverse group of attendees came together in response to the general deficiencies in safe working conditions for agricultural workers, with particular focus on the recent ag-related tragedies in our area.  It has been a “season of tragedy.”

  • the grain bin incident and death of two young people at Mt. Carroll, IL
  • the electrocution deaths of two high school students detasseling near Tampico, IL
  • the death of a Mexican migrant worker who was working in extreme heat.

Attendees were given the opportunity to speak for up to five minutes each.  Approximately a dozen people spoke passionately and articulately about working conditions; the frustrations of huge gaps in comprehensive safety and health issues for farm workers; grief; appalling work conditions; treating farm worker injuries and illnesses; the lack of communications in getting information to and from workers.

Some of the speakers were relatives and friends of those who were lost in our area this year.  Some speakers spoke through tears at what they have witnessed and dealt with.

After the testimonies, written questions from the audience were submitted to five panel members.  [These persons] represented legal aid and migrant worker advocacy, OSHA, IL Agriculture Department, a physician who gives primary care to migrant workers, and the Mexican Consulate.  After responding to the written questions, each of the panel members was asked to make a closing summary, from the viewpoint of their involvement with the many issues.

The following are some of the key discussion points and issues.

  • Farmers and farm workers work very hard to produce and harvest the food that sustains all of us.  Their hard work should be honored and respected.
  • Many farm workers, particularly migrant workers, are reluctant to report or complain about poor working conditions or safety deficiencies, because they fear for their jobs and/or they are not aware of their rights or how to communicate their problems.
  • Some labor contractors and ag-owners abuse and endanger farm workers by way of unsafe work practices, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, and taking advantage of their fear of losing work.
  • Exposure to pesticides and farm chemicals are a growing concern to health care professionals and worker advocates.
  • Farm and ag industry is considerably behind general industry safety, as it is harder to track employees, seasonal workers, migrants, and young people, and is far behind in safety training and education.  As a whole, farm safety is a rather fragmented process with gaps in jurisdiction, enforcement, and implementation.
  • FFA, Farm Bureaus, and many ag groups have started several safety programs which are making progress, but more needs to be done.
  • A lot of agriculture-related equipment and processes were built before modern safety standards were implemented, and retrofitting these assets is difficult and expensive.
  • Farm work fatalities have fallen from 60 per 100,000 workers to 25 per 100,000 in the past decade.  Still, this fatality rate is unacceptable.  The tracking of occupational illness and injuries is largely non-existent, because many incidents and problems go unreported and are not tracked accurately or comprehensively.  Data collection is extremely difficult.
  • The Mexican Consulate has developed a booklet, listing laws and regulations for migrant workers, so that they will know their rights and be more enabled to report problems, “stand up for safety,” and contribute to safer solutions and better work conditions.  Communications is a key issue.
  • Attendees were invited to call OSHA when unsafe conditions or practices are noted.  OSHA has investigated over 900 farm-related deaths; however [it] has limited or no jurisdiction over small employers.
  • All farm workers–regardless of age or origin should be afforded the same respect and safe working environment as any other worker.
  • Agricultural employers should provide effective training; worker protection standards need to be improved.  OSHA, EPA, and other regulatory enforcements need to be improved, and the current Illinois Farm Labor laws need to be revised.
  • Discussions and agreement on issues is important, but action is critical.

The forum brought together people of different ages, ethnicity, connections with agriculture, and backgrounds.  The attendees were strongly united in compassion and concern for the well-being of those who help to feed us.  Testimony and discussion was insightful, informative, pertinent, and often very emotional.

In the words of Susan Bauer, who facilitated the event:  “Nobody is leaving tonight the same person that walked through the door when they came.”

Source: TheCity1.com, “Farm Worker Forum: A Season of Tragedy” by Edward VanderMeulen, 25 Oct 2011.

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