Vehicle accidents also contribute heavily to mortality on farms, in part because the job requires farmers to drive long distances on unsafe roads. Other dangers include falls from roofs and multi-story barns, trampling by farm animals, suffocation in grain silos, and exposure to toxic pesticides and herbicides.
Farms are especially dangerous for children. From 2003 to 2010, there were more deaths for agriculture workers younger than 16 than there were for workers of the same age in all other industries combined, according to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. The vast majority of these minors were family members and therefore not subject to labor laws.
“If it was a construction zone, it would be fenced in and you wouldn’t be allowed in without a hard hat,” said Barbara Lee, director of the center. “Farming is just as dangerous [as] construction, but there are no restrictions.”
WHY DON’T AMERICANS push for better safety on small farms the way they do in other industries? One reason is reverence for the agrarian ideal. “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. Teddy Roosevelt, the Manhattan-raised son of a plate-glass importer, said, farmers “form the basis of all the other achievements of the American people.”
For decades, groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation have lobbied Congress successfully to exempt small farmers from most workplace regulations. A perennial rider to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration budget bill prevents the agency from inspecting or enforcing violations on any farm with fewer than 11 employees — a loophole that exempts up to 88 percent of all U.S. farms. The rider also prevents OSHA from tallying nonfatal injury data on small farms, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep reliable data on farm size.
In other occupations, labor unions often press for workplace protections. But the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, created to protect workers’ right to form a union, exempted agriculture workers. So did the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates wages and hours and restricts the use of child labor. These New Deal laws had to exempt farm workers to secure support from conservative southern Democrats, who may have been motivated in part by racism.
“Southern legislators basically said, ‘We employ African-Americans on our farms, and we are not going to give them the same rights as other workers in this country,” said Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers Union, which has fewer than 10,000 members.
Land grant universities have tackled the farm safety problem on a small scale, creating a patchwork of state-level farm safety specialists. In 1975, Congress appropriated $15,000 —upping it to $20,000 a year later — to each state to support the farm safety specialists’ work. But funding was redirected in the years since; only 11 farm safety centers are left, with a combined budget of $25 million, and much of their mission is devoted to research instead of outreach to farmers.
“For the most part, they only do it in the state in which they are located, so [it’s] not as far-reaching as it used to be,” Lee said. The Agriculture Department, for its part, has a program to help disabled farmers as well as provide some small grants for youth safety, but it does little in the way of injury prevention.
“Small is beautiful,” the British economist E.F. Schumacher famously observed, but in agriculture, bigger is safer. CDC surveys demonstrate that big factory farms with hired help are typically much safer than smaller, more traditional farms. A 2008 CDC study found that tractor rollover protection systems were most prevalent on farms with $100,000 in sales or more. And more recent BLS data show that 69 percent of workers who died on farms between 2011 and 2015 were self-employed.
But the vast majority of U.S. farms remain family-owned operations, according to the Agriculture Department’s farm census. Eighty-eight percent of all U.S. farms are classified as small by USDA with revenue of less than $350,000, and many farmers also work other jobs to get by. Meanwhile, large farms with incomes of $1 million or more produce more than half of all vegetables and dairy. On small farms, owners rely on family members to work the land, who aren’t counted toward the 11-employee threshold needed to trigger OSHA oversight.
“As you get more employees, you take on more of a management structure, and you start looking like more industrial employers and, therefore, you come under safety regulations,” Murphy said. “As you get bigger, you get new farms that tend to be more safe.”
Small farmers are also strong-willed. Nobody loves being regulated by the government, but small farmers hate it more than most. Many see it as an affront to a way of life in which skills are passed down from generation to generation. And in an industry where weather determines success and failure, farmers are accustomed to dealing with risk.
“One of the biggest things we hear from our members across the country is [the] creeping of overregulation,” said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “When they show up on the farm, it’s always an enforcement action — it’s not positive.”
Thus when the Labor Department proposed in 2011 a regulation banning children younger than 16 from operating tractors and those younger than 18 from working in silos, feed lots, and stockyards, it prompted a political uproar — even though the rule exempted children who worked on their parents’ farms. Eight months later, with the 2012 presidential election fast approaching, DOL withdrew the regulation and pledged not to reintroduce it for as long as Barack Obama was president.
Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser at OSHA under the Obama administration, recalled a push during her tenure to allow the investigation of deaths on farms. That also ran into a brick wall, though OSHA wasn’t seeking more enforcement power.
“If you’re in a government agency and you’re trying to think about how to regulate farmers,” Berkowitz said, “you’re not going to get past thinking about it before they’re up on Capitol Hill lobbying like you’re trying to shut them all down. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
OSHA tried to start inspecting grain bins, which pose dangers of asphyxiation, in 2013. Again, the political reaction was fierce, with Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) declaring that “farmers know better than bureaucrats how to keep their employees and family safe.” Here, too, OSHA backed off.
Even Deborah McCroskey, who 19 months after her father’s death discusses the details of with remarkable fortitude, doesn’t support requiring the kind of safety equipment that could have saved his life.
“You have to understand a lot of small farmers just get by, you know, little by little, just like somebody working paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “If you put a lot of standards that would cause them to have to go out and buy all new equipment, they couldn’t do that.’’
In her mind, rural safety and poverty are linked, but in a different way: Forcing farmers to follow safety regulations, she said, would do more to put farms out of business than actually make them safer.
“Then they wouldn’t have any income,” McCloskey said. “It would just be a burden on society in a different way.”
Ian Kullgren is a reporter for POLITICO Pro’s Employment and Immigration team.