OPINION: Farmworkers face deadly risks getting to, from fields
Sixteen farmworkers, packed tightly into a van driven by their employer — an unregistered Oregon labor contractor — headed home after a long day loading Christmas trees into trucks for sale in November 2019.
Not far from their destination, the van entered an intersection where a pickup truck slammed violently into its side. Three farmworkers were killed instantly, and others with severe injuries were taken to a hospital. Investigators found the contractor did not obey a traffic light and drove the van into the path of the oncoming pickup.
The surviving workers and the families of those who perished continue to struggle to rebuild their lives to this day.
Sadly, in many U.S. farming communities, these kinds of transportation incidents are almost routine. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that in 2020, 368 farmers and farmworkers died from a work-related injury. Transportation incidents were the leading cause of death for these farmers and farmworkers.
It is imperative that we stop this trend.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division is committed to improving compliance, so we are sure that the produce and other farm products we enjoy have not been picked by a farmworker who was injured or killed simply by trying to get to and from the fields.
The Wage and Hour Division determines if employers are meeting their responsibilities when it comes to vehicle safety standards. Requirements include ensuring vehicles are safe, in good working condition and insured appropriately; drivers have valid licenses to operate the vehicles; and contractors and drivers are registered with the division for their contracting activities.
Safe vehicles and safe driving habits save lives, as does wearing safety belts. The National Highway Administration estimates that 15,000 lives are saved by seat belts every year. Yet, here we are in 2022, pleading with farming industry employers and workers, "Please wear seat belts!"
When employers and contractors don't provide safe transportation of farmworkers, the Wage and Hour Division will hold them accountable. Several agricultural growers and contractors in California, Oregon and Washington are currently under investigation by the division after tragic incidents involving transportation of agricultural workers.
The industry has the power to help save farmworkers' lives: Growers must demand and ensure safe transportation of farmworkers to and from their fields. Contractors must make safe transportation of workers their priority. And workers must buckle up.
To those who say this is too much to expect, consider how the outcomes of two incidents in California might have been different.
A van carrying a large group of farmworkers to work crashed in California in 2015. In the wreck, four workers died, including a 16-year-old.
The Department of Labor found both the grower and its farm labor contractor were responsible for providing an unsafe vehicle, with an unlicensed driver behind the wheel, and workers not wearing safety belts as required.
In 2017 near Calexico, California, a blown tire and a missing seat belt led to tragedy that claimed the life of one worker and injured six others.
In that incident, a federal court later found a Southern California grower and its farm labor contractor responsible.
While we are deeply committed to protecting agricultural workers and holding violators accountable to ensure compliance, we cannot fix every vehicle, be behind the wheel or ensure every worker is buckled. We need agricultural industry employers, contractors and workers to do their part to ensure everyone comes home safe at the end of each day.
Richard Longo is the Western regional deputy administrator in the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division.
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