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OSHA, accidental deaths, and small farms

ag workers

When his mother gave birth to Florencio Gómez Rodríguez, she almost certainly did not wish for him to die by drowning in a manure pit. But that is what happened after the undocumented Mexican immigrant drove a skid steer into a 14-foot pond filled with cow manure on a Wisconsin dairy farm in March 2023.

Rodríguez’s death was discussed in a ProPublica article exploring worker deaths on Wisconsin dairy farms that were not investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Headshot of Richard Smoley

The article did not cover fruit or vegetable operations. In fact, checking through the 7,326 fatalities listed by OSHA for the year up to October 25, I can only find one that appears to have been on a produce operation (a fruit farm).

Even so, some of the article’s findings are relevant to the produce industry, particularly to growers employing 11 or fewer workers.

“At least 17 workers—mostly immigrants—have died on Wisconsin dairy farms since 2009. Twelve of those deaths happened on farms with fewer than 11 workers,” says the article.

OSHA visited the sites but did not investigate. Why? OSHA is banned from enforcing safety laws on farms with fewer than 11 workers unless they have employer-provided housing known as a “temporary labor camp.”

The small-farms exemption has been written into OSHA budgets by Congress since 1976.

We are then left wondering what constitutes a “temporary labor camp.”

No one is quite sure. Farm employers regularly provide housing for their workers, but very often these accommodations are offsite. If a grower hires out some motel rooms for his workers, does that constitute a “temporary labor camp”?

OSHA has never come to a clear determination about this point.

Interviews and law enforcement records showed that Gómez and other workers lived in a house down the road provided by the farm owner, and that another worker lived in a trailer on the farm. But OSHA officials said that an inspector hadn’t found evidence of a temporary labor camp.

The situation is particularly complicated for dairy, which is a year-round industry and therefore engages year-round employees. What exactly is “temporary” housing in those cases?

But since fruit and vegetable operations are seasonal, the criterion of “temporary labor camps” is more likely to apply.

To be clear, we are not talking about foul play here. We are talking about accidental deaths in an industry fraught with unsafe working conditions. OSHA even has a list of the “Dairy Dozen,” the top 12 items for concern on dairy operations.

Not all of them apply to the produce industry, but some do, such as:

• Electrical systems

• Skid steer loader operation

• Power take-offs

• “Other power transmission and functional components”

• “Hazardous energy while servicing and maintaining equipment”

• On-farm chemicals

In some cases, it would seem that OSHA tends to keep its hands off small operations. But that is no reassurance in the face of accidental deaths that might have been averted.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 13 books. The latest is Seven Games of Life and How to Play.