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The Most Dangerous Workplace

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The most dangerous workplaces is the family farm, which is why we need a lot more attention paid to working conditions there. This is an outstanding discussion of this easily solvable problem.

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. Minnesota and other Midwestern states allow small farmers to rely on their own judgment and experience to decide what’s safe and what isn’t. State and federal budget cuts have slashed farm training and safety programs, even as farm machines have become more powerful and more dangerous.

Deaths are on the rise. More than 210 work-related deaths occurred on Minnesota farms from 2003 to 2013 — an increase of more than 30 percent when compared with a decade earlier. A Star Tribune review of those fatal cases shows that at least two-thirds involved practices that violate federal workplace rules.

Unlike at most work sites, state and federal regulators rarely visit farms after a fatality. There is usually no penalty for running a dangerous farm and little financial incentive to improve safety. Steps to address safety problems at the federal level have stalled, most recently in 2014 when Congress forced the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to curtail a campaign to reduce grain bin deaths.

Ah, those lovely congressional Republicans.

Focusing on Minnesota, this piece shows that farmers, their families, and their workers (often the same people) suffer from interrelated problems of consistently poor safety practices, technological innovations not paired with safety equipment, and a lack of enforcement for the laws that do exist. It’s not like we are talking about some incredibly difficult problem to solve here. It’s about regulation and enforcement, combined with safety classes, technological safety fixes, and basic safety precautions like actually making sure no one is in the grain bin when you dump grain in it. Here’s a little piece from Australia on solving farm safety problems there. It’s not hard. It’s a matter of willpower and cultural change. Of course, congressional Republicans will actually halt any attempt to make farms safer because it’s freedom to die in a grain silo, almost as much as it’s freedom to die from your college classmate’s gun. But like a lot of rural issues, progressives also don’t focus on this much, including in the labor movement. Unions aren’t going to organize most of the farms, but it’s in everyone’s interests (except maybe the employer but that changes if the nation cracks down on them enough) that we fight for safe workplaces everywhere.

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