Animal Agriculture Is Dangerous Work. The People Who Do It Have Few Protections.

The owner of the farm, an older white man, pulled the bull off. He led Andrade to a chair outside the milking parlor and told him to sit; he’d take him to the hospital once he had milked the cows—around 80 total—he said. For at least two hours, Andrade sat bleeding outside the milking parlor while the farmer finished the morning’s chores.

Even more present than the intense pain, Andrade said later in Spanish, was his worry that he would lose his eye. “It’s not like losing a foot or a hand—vision is the most important thing,” he said. “I would have been totally useless.”

Originally from Mexico City, Andrade had been in the United States for only five months. Prior to his arrival, he had worked in transportation logistics for the pharmaceutical industry for 40 years before his automated employer operations and laid him off. In search of work to put his son and daughter through college and support his wife and elderly parents, he emigrated to the US at 55 years old. In his new country, he did not have a family, he did not speak English, and he had no one—except his employer—to turn to for support.

Outside the milking parlor, he did the only thing he could think of to help himself: he found a bottle of iodine used to disinfect the cows’ teats, applied some to a towel, and held it to his face to control the bleeding. “I felt really vulnerable,” he said.

Lazaro Alvarez Andrade days after he was attacked by a bull and almost lost his eye. (Photo by Rebecca Fuentes.)

The bull attack nearly cost Andrade his vision, in addition to breaking two of his teeth, fracturing bones in his face and cracking two of his ribs. It also triggered a series of events that revealed just how precarious his position was, working in the US in an industry with few protections for workers like him.

Even though it is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, ranking third among all occupations in fatal injuries, workers in the US dairy, poultry, and livestock industries lack the basic protections that workers in most every other industry take for granted. While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), created in 1970 to oversee worker safety, has hundreds of standards to protect workers in industries like construction, it has only a handful protecting workers in agriculture.

And workers like Andrade are often exempt from the labor protections it does offer. That’s because a rider attached to OSHA’s budget in 1976 aiming at protecting small farms from onerous government oversight prohibits the agency from using federal funds to investigate injuries and deaths on farms with 10 or fewer non-family employees. Exceptions are only made for farms that maintain labor camps.

Today, in the poultry industrialized and automated US dairy, and livestock industries, where a single worker can tend of thousands of animals and a staff of fewer than 10 is the norm, the rider leaves the vast majority of animal agriculture workers without oversight or recourse when they get hurt. Even when a worker is severely injured or killed on a farm with 10 or fewer workers, OSHA is prohibited from investigating.

Despite research, news reports, and articles about worker injuries and deaths, a Civil Eats investigation has found that because of the exemption, workers are unprotected by federal OSHA labor laws at 96 percent of the operations that hire people to produce pork, eggs, beef , poultry, and milk in America. And federal OSHA sees only a sliver of the total fatalities associated with that work. Over the decade between 2011 and 2020, for instance, 85 percent of the deaths related to animal agriculture were not reported to the agency.

It is impossible to know how many worker deaths OSHA’s limited authority obscures. What is clear, however, is that the federal government lacks a true picture of the dangers of animal agriculture.

OSHA confirmed that the rider handicaps its ability to address the safety of animal agriculture.

“The rider places limitations on OSHA’s ability to intervene, but that does not diminish our concern for worker safety,” said Doug Parker, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor. Parker did not respond to more detailed questions about the high percentage of fatalities falling outside the agency’s jurisdiction or OSHA’s inability to investigate worker deaths.

It is impossible to know how many worker deaths this limited authority obscures. No other federal agency routinely gathers data that is specific to injuries and deaths among farm employees, making it tough to parse them from overall farm fatalities. What is clear, however, is that the federal government lacks a true picture of the dangers of animal agriculture, and though a small number of states can investigate small-farm incidents using state funds, federal OSHA legally cannot investigate or sanction employers in what may be a significant number of worker deaths.

“Agriculture is dangerous, animals are dangerous, and really, the government’s hands are tied to help workers. And a lot of these are immigrant workers who are very scared to complain and speak up,” said Deborah Berkowitz, who spent six years as chief of staff and then a senior policy adviser for OSHA during President Obama’s administration.

The lack of safeguards is especially alarming, given the factory-like state of animal agriculture today. More than 90 percent of agricultural animals in the US are raised mostly indoors in facilities called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which typically house at least 1,000 “animal units”—equal to about 1,000 beef cows, 2,500 hogs, or 125,000 broiler chickens —on site.

What OSHA reports do exist paint an ugly picture. Thirteen people have drowned or asphyxiated in manure pits at dairies since 2003; Others have died after being attacked, gored, or trampled by cows or bulls, entangled in rotating equipment, crushed or run over by heavy machinery, and suffocated in piles of hay, grain bins, and silos.

In dairies and hog and poultry barns, a number of workers have accidentally injected themselves with vaccines intended for the animals, resulting in poisoning or wounds. Dairy workers have been hospitalized after drinking chemicals they mistook for water. Exposure to manure infected at least one hog barn worker with E-coli, and others have lacerated their feet with the power washers required to clean the floors. And workers across most animal-agriculture industries are frequent victims of amputations caused by oft-present heavy machinery that catches clothes and body parts, or by crushing sustained injuries while moving animals.

These incidents are in addition to the innumerable broken bones, sprains, and head injuries normally associated with manual labor and animal contact. And though identified as “accidents,” many of them would be preventable through training, safety equipment, and more standardized protocols.

Despite the dangers inherent in the work, the agricultural lobby, led by organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation, opposes regulation and worker protection with arguments that hearken back to the idea of ​​farming as a natural, wholesome occupation and farmers as self-reliant people who do not need government bureaucracy in their way.

Members including the Farm Bureau, as well as poultry, meat, and dairy companies and trade groups, declined to comment on their anti-regulatory agenda or respond to detailed questions from Civil Eats about the OSHA exemption and its impact on the safety of animal agriculture workers. However, a few—namely the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), and Smithfield—pointed to voluntary industry safety programs as evidence of their concern for worker safety.

“Smithfield Foods supports sensible government regulations that protect the health and safety of our workers,” said Ray Atkinson, Smithfield’s director of external communications, in a statement. “Worker safety and health is a key pillar of Smithfield’s industry-leading philosophy.”

Still, critics say the industry’s exemptions from worker protections should be re-examined. “There’s always been this myth of the Yeoman farmer out there,” said Robert Martin, director of the food system policy program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “’We don’t need to regulate agriculture; it’s an individualized industry.’ There’s been this agricultural exceptionalism in policy, regulation, and legislation, and it’s really just not the way things are anymore.”

Lazaro Alvarez Andrade is among those most impacted. After two hours outside the milking parlor, the farmer’s wife drove him to the hospital in the farm’s pickup truck, stopping by the house the farmer provided about five minutes down the road so he could put on a clean shirt. Because she spoke only English and he spoke only Spanish, they were quiet during the near half-hour drive from there to the hospital.

Around 1 pm, three hours after the incident, Andrade finally saw a medical team. The doctor was surprised, he remembered. “They said, ‘What happened to you? What happened to you?”’ Andrade said. “I had a lot of blood on me, and it was continuing to bleed.”

The doctor gave Andrade five stiches from the middle of his right cheek up to his right eye. He wanted to put in a sixth stitch as well, but he may have damaged his eyeball, so he refrained. The doctor told Andrade that given the seriousness of his injuries, he was lucky to have emerged with his vision—and his life.

Minimizing Risk and Externalizing Impacts

A tiny handful of companies reap the largest share of profits from these operations. In pursuit of efficiency and revenue, animal agriculture has become extremely consolidated over the last few decades. Now, the top four companies in each industry control the majority of the market share—54 percent of the poultry industry, 70 percent of the pork industry, and 85 percent of the beef industry. They make billions—in fiscal year 2021, for example, the top processor Tyson Foods reported sales of $47.05 billion.

Meat and poultry companies—including Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and Smithfield—are practiced at diffusing risk, minimizing liability, and externalizing the negative impacts of their operations through contracting and byzantine corporate structures. For instance, as vertically integrated corporations, or “integrators,” they contract with independent farmers to grow their animals, and those farmers then hire the laborers needed to manage the animals, a setup that distances the corporation from the people doing the work—and often allows the workforce to fall below the threshold for OSHA oversight.

The companies named and their trade group affiliates did not respond to detailed questions from Civil Eats about their use of these techniques.

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