Workplace Safety and Workers’ Compensation for Farmworkers

Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States with a fatal injury rate about 7 times higher than that of the general working population.1 Migrant workers, particularly farmworkers, are at a disproportionately higher risk of injury and work-related health issues because they tend to fill low-paying jobs in dangerous working conditions.2 Fortunately, the vast majority of agricultural injuries are non-fatal and do not lead to long-term disability.3 However, even seemingly “small” injuries can result in several days out of work and lost wages, two things that can put a great deal of financial stress on farmworkers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which declares all workers have a right to safe working conditions and established OSHA, the federal agency that enforces this right, is non-discriminatory in who it protects. Therefore, even migrant workers and those without U.S. citizenship can technically report risky work conditions and injuries to OSHA without consequence.Despite these protections, many farmworkers continue to fear retaliation from employers if they attempt to file a report or believe that efforts to make a safety change in their workplace are futile. A 2011 survey of 150 immigrant workers in New York by the non-profit group Make the Road revealed that half of those surveyed had never even heard of OSHA, and the vast majority was resigned to the idea that speaking up would do more harm than good.2 In reality, federal oversight of the agricultural industry is limited because there are too few safety inspectors for the number of workplaces in America; OSHA inspections are typically restricted to workplaces where a death has occurred or where multiple, severe safety complaints have been reported.  Thus, very few farmworkers have actually come into contact with inspectors or have seen safety changes made following a single report, reinforcing the belief that speaking up is futile.2

For those farmworkers who do choose to file a safety complaint and for those actually injured on the job, there are protections in place under OSHA to ensure they are not in danger of losing their job or being deported.  However, accessing the resources to manage an injury and if disabled, to receive workers’ compensation, can be challenging and near-impossible for a farmworker. The health care system in itself is incredibly difficult to navigate, especially for a non-native English speaker with limited to no health insurance. Farmworkers might also have difficulty finding a doctor who can effectively handle their workers’ compensation case. Though OSHA is supposed to protect workers following an injury report or safety complaint, the hard truth is that employers sometimes retaliate—or threaten retaliation–anyways, knowing that farmworkers typically do not qualify for legal aid and will not pursue compensation for their injury or lost wages. Furthermore, the ability of farmworkers to receive workers’ compensation differs by state with only 13 states requiring seasonal agricultural workers to be covered to the same extent as any other worker. In North Carolina, only employers with more than 10 full-time non-seasonal workers have to provide workers’ compensation to their employees, greatly limiting the number of qualifying farmworkers across the state.4

With a new administration in the White House and looming changes to the H-2A visa program and DACA, it is more important than ever to advocate for workplace and human rights’ protections for farmworkers in the US. At the state and local level, we can support organizations–like Legal Aid of North Carolina–that seek justice for farmworkers who would otherwise be unable to qualify for or afford federal aid. We can also support legislation aimed at enhancing farmworker safety and speak out against harmful changes to existing laws (ex: recent discussions around removing protective provisions of the Worker Protection Standard). For more information about Workers’ Compensation and farmworker safety, check out farmworkerjustice.org and this link to state-by-state coverage.

Resources:

  1. United States Department of Labor. Agricultural Operations. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. https://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/agriculturaloperations/. Accessed March 13, 2018.
  2. Make the Road New York. Immigrant Worker Health and Safety: A Guide for Front-Line Advocates. https://www.osha.gov/dte/grant_materials/fy10/sh-20830-10/Advocate_Guide.pdf. Published 2011. Accessed March 13, 2018.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Agricultural Safety. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/aginjury/default.html. Published June 6, 2017. Accessed March 13, 2018.
  4. Farmworker Justice. Workers’ Compensation. Farmworker Justice. https://www.farmworkerjustice.org/content/workers-compensation. Accessed March 13, 2018.

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