Health & Safety, OSHA, Regulations & Compliance

Strictly Business: Q&A with Amy Wolfe, AgSafe Executive Director

From Bakersfield.com, 29 Jul 2011.

Amy Wolfe, MPPA, CFRE, is executive director of AgSafe.

Amy Wolfe, MPPA, CFRE, is executive director of AgSafe.

AgSafe, a nonprofit organization comprising individuals, associations and businesses dedicated to preventing injuries, illness and deaths among workers in California’s agricultural industry, has scheduled its monthly Farm Labor Contractor Continuing Education Program for 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 13 at the DoubleTree Hotel, 3100 Camino Del Rio Court. Cost is $180 for AgSafe members, $220 for non-members. We asked the group about the program and safety in general.

NAME: Amy Wolfe

TITLE: Executive Director, AgSafe

Question: What year was AgSafe founded, and by whom?

Answer: 1991 by a coalition of men and women from the agricultural industry, academia — specifically, UC Cooperative Extension — agricultural trade associations and industry support businesses in response to the passage of SB 198, state legislation mandating that all businesses have formal, written Injury and Illness Prevention Programs (IIPPs). The group wanted to ensure that resources were available to all farmers, ranchers, packers and processors on how to become compliant with SB 198. Their passion led to the formation of AgSafe, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. We have 796 members.

Q: What kinds of topics will be covered in the program?

A: As part of their annual licensing requirements, farm labor contractors (FLCs) must receive training that covers federal and state wage and hour laws, federal and state worker housing and transportation laws, Cal/OSHA safety regulations and updates on new regulations, workers’ compensation laws and sexual harassment prevention laws. The program also provides information on human resources laws and best management practices, FLC licensing and renewal requirements and a grower/FLC relations panel.

Q: Sometimes the relationship between growers and farm laborers is adversarial. How do you help the two sides find common ground so no one gets sick or injured?

A: Our program is designed to provide FLCs with the eight hours of safety, health and human resources training they are required to receive annually to maintain their FLC license. We encourage growers to participate in the program as well for a number of reasons. First, it gives both groups the opportunity to hear the same information from state agency and industry experts, ensuring that all parties have no reason to disagree on the specifics of the law relative to employee safety. We have also found that our program provides a neutral environment for healthy discussions about how growers and contractors can work together to ensure worker safety and health. Ultimately, growers and contractors want to protect their people from harm. Sometimes it’s a matter of coming together and talking through the issues away from the field and the pressures of this time-sensitive business.

Q: Here in Bakersfield, some farm laborers are working night shifts to avoid the extreme summer heat. Are more growers resorting to that or is that still highly unusual?

A: Working at night presents a new set of safety hazards that employers must address. For example, the transition to night work requires a revised Emergency Action Plan, taking into account the need for 24-hour medical service providers and evacuation procedures on roads that are easily traveled in the dark. Lighting is a major component of working at night, ensuring that workers can easily see the task at hand and avoid hazards.

Q: Are there more deaths and injuries related to equipment and machinery or working in the hot sun? Which is more dangerous?

A: According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), agriculture is the second most dangerous industry after mining. That being the case, the agricultural industry has dedicated millions of dollars and thousands of hours to develop systems that mitigate risk, along with education and training programs for employers and workers that teach both groups how to stay safe.

For example, the efforts of AgSafe and the industry as a whole to provide heat illness prevention training are paying off. According to OSHA, California has one of the lowest incidence of heat-related fatalities in the nation.

In contrast, NIOSH has found that the most common cause of farming fatalities nationwide from 1992 to 2009 is tractor overturns. In looking at the issue from a volume standpoint, it stands to reason that there are more injuries and death associated with equipment and machinery because more workers use these implements year-round in both cold and hot climates, thus creating more opportunities for problems to occur.

Q: The state requires someone on site at harvests to be trained in how to recognize heat stroke and to have an emergency response plan in place. How widespread is compliance with that regulation?

A: Agriculture has taken extensive measures to ensure compliance with all aspects of the heat illness prevention standard (California Code of Regulations, Standard 3395). According to the U.S. Department of Labor, from October 2009 to September 2010, 285 citations were issued to California agricultural employers for failure to comply with the heat illness prevention standard. This is down from 411 citations during the previous reporting period, an indication that the industry continues to make improvements.

Q: With so many growers still rebounding from the recession and the drought, it’s probably tempting to cut costs by neglecting some safety precautions. How do you convince people that investing in safety measures is good business?

A: It’s a misnomer to think that their first reaction is to jeopardize the safety of their workers. Growers and FLCs are working more collaboratively, sharing ideas on how they effectively protect workers. AgSafe has seen an increase in membership during this time.

Q: Are there instances in which excessive regulation actually hurts agriculture or hurts the ability to provide a safe workplace?

A: The general public is often unaware of the layers upon layers of regulations placed upon the agricultural industry in the name of worker safety. It is disingenuous to state that employers don’t care about protecting their workers. The opposite is true. However, their efforts are often weighed down with reams of bureaucratic tape, multiple local and state agencies overlapping issues and a general quagmire of paperwork.

Source: Bakersfield.com, “Strictly Business: Q&A with Amy Wolfe, AgSafe executive director” 29 Jul 2011.

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