For decades, family farms that employ 11 or fewer non-family workers have been exempt from federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversight. This means that deaths and injuries that would have raised alarms in other industries have gone unreported in this industry.
In 1976, the federal OSHA appropriation bill contained a rider that prohibits federal money to be used for regulatory activities on farms with 11 or fewer non-family employees, or about 1.2 million workers on 93 percent of all farms in the U.S. That rider has remained intact.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that between 2011 and 2016, 333 employees on these farms were killed in farm-related accidents.
Three states on their own
State job agencies could conduct worksite reviews, but in practice only three states conduct such reviews: California, Oregon and Washington.
A 2011 study by two researchers looked at fatalities at exempt farms between 1993 and 2007 in the three states against all other states and determined fatality rates were 1.6 times to 3 times higher in the states without supervision than the three states that provide supervision.
All OSHA rules
OHSA is also barred from examining hazards before they lead to injuries or deaths as well as from investigating complaints about unsafe conditions. Common safety practices such as protective eyewear, harnesses and safety equipment go unregulated on these farms.
It is also prohibited from giving training or advice to these farmers. What works on one farm – or fails on another farm – is not passed along from one to the other as it is in OSHA-regulated industries.
OSHA is also prevented from bringing fines. Usually, failure to report a worker fatality within eight hours brings a $7,000 penalty, but if the farm employs fewer than 11 non-family workers, OSHA is not only prohibited from investigating the circumstances around the death, it is unable to fine the farmer for failure to report the death.