October 14, 2015 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

At the Minneapolis Star Tribune, reporter Jeffrey Meitrodt authored an outstanding four-part series on one of the nation’s deadliest occupations: farm work. In “Tragic Harvest,” Meitrodt chronicles the impact of lax farmworker safety rules and the rise in worker fatalities in Minnesota. He begins his series with the story of farmworker Richard Rosetter:

Richard Rosetter stood inside his 28-foot grain bin and smashed a shovel into the thick layer of ice that covered his corn.

He was in a foul mood. His wife and a neighbor were pestering him, upset that he was working by himself, with no spotter to rescue him if he got trapped.

He had been doing this for 50 years, Rosetter reminded them that cold day in February 2014.

Just before 3 p.m. he realized his mistake. As the corn turned to quicksand beneath Rosetter’s feet, he pulled out his cellphone to call for help. But the walls of the bin were too thick. The phone didn’t work.

It took rescuers six hours to find his body at the bottom of the bin.

“I think it was totally preventable,” said Gene Stengel, a local farm bureau leader who was hired to haul Rosetter’s corn that day. “I tear myself up. What could I have done differently?”

At nearly all workplaces in America today, regulators, insurers and workers themselves demand safeguards to make it less likely for a careless mistake to become a tragedy. Coal mines, factories and construction sites are safer as a result.

Not the family farm.

In the series’ second installment, “Unsafe Tractors, Rising Risks,” Meitrodt investigates tractor-related deaths, reporting that tractor rollovers are the top cause of death on the family farm, despite available methods for making the machines safer.

Other countries insist on such rollover protective structures, as they are known. But the United States allows hundreds of thousands of older tractors to remain in use without the safeguards. It also allows farmers to remove the safety features, and some do.

In the series’ third installment, ”A Job for Life, and Death,” Meitrodt explores the intersections of an aging farming population and the risk of occupation injury, reporting that nearly half of Minnesota residents who died in farm incidents in the last 10 years were 65 or older. The last installment, “Rules Enforced, Lives Saved,” investigates what’s working to keep farmers and farmworkers safe — Meitrodt reports:

“Washington has one of the best systems in the country,” said Matt Keifer, director of the National Farm Medicine Center in Wisconsin.

Last year, Washington consultants visited 294 agricultural operations, including dozens of farms in the Yakima Valley, the state’s agricultural heart. By comparison, Minnesota has provided free consulting to 10 farms since 2010.

If all states followed the Washington model, the lives of about 1,000 farmworkers could be saved in five years, according to a study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

To read the full series, visit the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In other news:

Los Angeles Times: Reporters Patrick McGreevy and Chris Megerian report on California’s newly signed equal pay law, which is being described as one of the toughest pay equity measures in the country. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, broadens California’s previous law that prohibited employers from paying women less than men for the same job. The newly signed law “broadens that prohibition by saying bosses cannot pay employees less than those of the opposite sex for ‘substantially similar work,’ even if their titles are different or they work at different sites.” The new law also prohibits retaliation against workers for discussing wages with co-workers. McGreevy and Megerian write: “(The law) is supported by the California Chamber of Commerce and most state Republican lawmakers. National women’s rights leaders said the legislation was a model for other states and for Congress, where similar efforts have been stalled by Republican opposition.”

Gawker: U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez visited the headquarters of Gawker Media for an hour-long Q&A. The Q&A is presented as five video clips in which Perez talk about what the U.S. can learn from workplaces abroad; labor standards and the Trans-Pacific Partnership; employer retaliation and union organizing; the upcoming Supreme Court case challenging union fair-share fees; and congressional “dysfunction.”

Lincoln Journal Star: Richard Piersol reports that OSHA has proposed its biggest fine ever for Nebraska for the deaths of two men who died in a railcar cleaning incident in Omaha in April — the workers, Dallas Foulk, 40, and Adrian LaPour, 44, were killed in an explosion. OSHA reported that Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services, which specializes in cleaning railcars that contain herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, used oil, asphalt, gasoline and ethanol, sent the workers into the car without monitoring the air continuously for explosive hazards and without giving workers emergency retrieval equipment or properly fitted respirators. OSHA has proposed $963,000 in penalties and placed the company in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program. Piersol reports: “OSHA said Nebraska Rail Car Services also failed to comply with a variety of other regulations, including training workers on hazardous materials in use, establishing a hazardous waste program, preventing fall hazards, electrical safety and training workers on safely operating powered industrial vehicles, a violation the company was cited for in 2013.“

Boston Globe: Reporter Katie Johnston writes that low-wage workers filled the halls of the State House this week to support legislation on a minimum wage raise and fairer scheduling practices. Workers testified before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development — Johnston reports: “Dunkin’ Donuts worker Theresa Pennington said that a pay bump to $15 an hour would help her save enough money to get her own place in hopes of regaining custody of her 5-year-old daughter. Dan Burke, a server at Temple Bar in Cambridge, spoke in favor of a bill that would do away with the tipped minimum wage, raising wait staff from $3 to $9 an hour.” Not surprisingly, industry groups oppose any legislation.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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