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

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

Federal OSHA protections don’t apply to 96 percent of the animal agriculture operations that hire workers in America. When people die on the job, the federal agency doesn’t respond 85 percent of the time.

A dairy worker in a barn. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice)

Photo credit: Vera Chang

On a rainy morning in September 2013, Lazaro Alvarez Andrade greeted the cows at the small dairy where he worked in rural New York. He was preparing to lead them six at a time into the milking parlor when he heard the thunder of hooves behind him. Before he could run, a young bull—which had been brought to the farm without his knowledge—rammed into him from behind, slamming him to the ground. As he fell, his face struck a metal rail separating two cow stalls. He felt intense pain, and he could not see out of his right eye. Blood gushed from his face, soaking his short-sleeved shirt and denim pants and running over his oilcloth boots.

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.

Investigation Highlights
  • Ninety percent of the animals grown for food in America are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs. Each one houses at least 1,000 cows, 2,500 hogs, or 125,000 chickens.
  • As CAFOs growing chickens, hogs, cattle and dairy cows become larger and more automated and efficient, the workers inside are less protected by federal OSHA.
  • Federal OSHA protections don’t apply to workers on farms with 10 or fewer workers due to a 46-year-old budget rider intended to protect family farms. Today, that exempts 96 percent of the animal-ag operations that hire workers from OSHA oversight.
  • Agricultural work is meanwhile some of the most dangerous work in the country, ranking third in fatal injuries among all occupations.

Read the full series here.

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 employer automated 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 U.S. at 55 years old. In his new country, he did not have 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.)

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 chain of events that revealed just how precarious his position was, working in the U.S. in an industry with few protections for workers like him.

Even though agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, ranking third among all occupations in fatal injuries, workers in the U.S. 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 increasingly industrialized and automated U.S. dairy, poultry, and livestock industries, where a single worker can tend 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 U.S. 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 injuries sustained 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 p.m., 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 it 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

This country is dotted with CAFOs. From Washington to Iowa to North Carolina and across great swaths of the Southwest, barn after windowless barn holds cows, hogs, and chickens being milked, fed, and watered by the thousands, sometimes the tens or hundreds of thousands.

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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Aaron Johnson, who manages the Challenging Corporate Power program with Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI) and works most closely with the poultry industry, said the tactics externalize labor risks. “They have got more than 10 growers in a region, but because those are each independent entities, then none of those growers and whoever else is working on those farms would be under OSHA scrutiny,” he said. “Perdue’s overall labor pool is definitely above that OSHA exemption, but because they’ve externalized that out into the contract structure, they don’t have to worry about it.”

In the hog industry, larger companies have also found a way to divide up the workforce and avoid liabilities, potentially also avoiding OSHA oversight. Take the Illinois-based Carthage System, for example. A top pork producer in the U.S., Carthage exemplifies a growing model of hog farming that brings management and service firms together with investors to cooperatively fund CAFOs that purport to be family farms.

Hogs inside a finishing barn in Iowa.

Hogs inside a finishing barn in Iowa.

The CAFOs are registered as subsidiary LLCs and run by management firms, not by farmers. Other LLCs in the system are set up to site the CAFOs, train and manage employees, run labor camps that house workers, conduct animal research, and provide veterinary services. In the Carthage system, the CAFOs breed and then wean a supply of feeder piglets for more than 300 farmers in six states who have invested in the system. Those farmers then grow the pigs to market weight and send them to processors for meat.

The network is specifically designed to protect corporate assets, shield the identities of investors and protect them from liability in the case of lawsuits, said Loka Ashwood, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky. Ashwood and her colleagues published a study about Carthage System and its network, which described how it allows one LLC to easily fold when faced with a pollution lawsuit or bankruptcy without impacting the assets of all the others.

The same structure can also shield the CAFOs from liability connected to labor issues, said Ashwood. And it provides little incentive to improve working conditions. Within Carthage, an LLC called Professional Swine Management hires and manages the laborers for all the CAFOs, shielding investors from any disputes or investigations arising over worker health and safety. It’s nearly impossible to decipher who the investors are, she said, so workers can’t directly pressure or sue them.

OSHA said that each CAFO registered as an LLC is liable as a separate entity. “Evaluation of corporate structure is assessed on a case-by-case basis,” the agency told Civil Eats. The scenario allows corporate networks to divvy up a large number of workers among dozens of CAFOs, potentially pushing some below the threshold for OSHA enforcement and keeping workers outside the reach of federal OSHA protections.

“If something egregious does happen, they’re incredibly isolated,” Ashwood said. “It’s hard on the people, and I think [the CAFOs] are made that way by design.”

Carthage isn’t unique in using the model, she said. Other pork powerhouses use a similar model, running a network of specialized LLCs to organize shareholder investments, deflect lawsuits, and minimize financial risks for investors, including for labor, Ashwood said.

Carthage System’s founders, Joe Connor and Bill Hollis, did not respond to phone calls or to detailed questions from Civil Eats about the ownership and structure of the organization.

A Compromised Mission

As an employee at a small New York dairy, Andrade was also working in a consolidated industry bent on efficiency and profit, often at the expense of other values. Following his third doctor’s appointment, nine days after his accident, he struggled to talk because of his facial fractures and damaged teeth, and his broken ribs made bending and climbing stairs painful.

He was eating a traditional Mexican breakfast in the two-story house he shared with a man named Salvador, a dairy worker at another operation in the area, when the farmer appeared in the doorway. With Salvador as translator, the farmer told Andrade that he was no longer going to be useful on the farm and had no more work there. He handed him $500 in cash owed for the previous week’s work and told him to leave.

While the farmer had been kind to Andrade before the accident—even taking him to the store to buy groceries a few days prior—he approached Andrade in its aftermath with aggression, speaking harshly, and opening and closing his fists, Andrade said. “He was trying to scare me, to cause me to be fearful, saying I wasn’t going to be able to work there anymore,” he said.

“The first thing that came into my head is, ‘Where am I going to go? I have nowhere to go if the house and the work go together,’” Andrade said. Given the farmer’s behavior, he sensed he needed to be out soon.

To help Andrade have a place to live while he healed, Salvador quit his job to head south for different work. The two left that night.

Especially at operations not under OSHA’s jurisdiction, workers like Andrade are at the mercy of their employers—the conditions they set, the rules they create.

“Congress passed this law with a lot of promise, and then Republicans and big business have tried to weaken and even kill the law ever since.”

“In essence, there is no oversight for labor and housing conditions for immigrant farmworkers,” said Will Lambek of Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based nonprofit that helps farmworkers attain economic justice and human rights. For foreign workers especially, he said, there are no effective ways to protect their rights through litigation and no practicable means for workers to win rights through collective bargaining. “There is no effective regulatory apparatus,” he said. “What employers say goes, and workers have very little recourse.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. President Richard Nixon created OSHA in 1970 to require that American employers provide their employees with safe work environments. But almost immediately, corporate forces began efforts to restrict or abolish it, citing what they viewed as its unnecessary and costly bureaucracy.

“Congress passed this law with a lot of promise, and then Republicans and big business have tried to weaken and even kill the law ever since,” Berkowitz said. “I started in the field in 1978, and there were all these bills to get rid of OSHA enforcement. There are still bills coming now to get rid of OSHA. Even though it’s such a weak and small agency. . . . It’s always been a target of big business.”

OSHA’s budget is consequently anemic. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had an $8 billion budget in 2020, OSHA’s budget was a mere $600 million that year, according to a report on the agency. And while OSHA oversees between 7 and 8 million workplaces employing around 130 million workers, federal and state OSHAs combined have only around 2,000 inspectors—and about 5.6 federal inspectors for every 1 million workers. That means that if OSHA inspectors were to visit each workplace once, it would take 165 years.

“All that power [the agricultural lobby has] is because of dollars given to politicians, spent on campaigns, or spent influencing state and local politics at every stage,” Berkowitz said. “The lobby is huge, and it’s powerful, and politicians get scared.”

Once the rider intended to relieve small farmers of the burdens of excessive bureaucracy passed in 1976, farms with 10 or fewer non-family employees and no temporary labor camp slipped out from under federal OSHA oversight. In addition to being prohibited from investigating worker injuries and deaths, OSHA also cannot conduct programmed safety or health inspections in these workplaces or respond to employee complaints.

Thirteen states and territories that run their own OSHA programs—including California, Washington, Oregon, and Virginia, as well as Puerto Rico—do allow oversight of small livestock operations using state funds and they have lower fatality rates than other states.

Andrade wasn’t living in one of those states. Wounded, and now unemployed and homeless, he was in an especially vulnerable position. He connected with Rebecca Fuentes at the Workers’ Center of Central New York, who he’d met at a health and safety outreach session she’d conducted at a large dairy where he’d worked.

While advocating on Andrade’s behalf, Fuentes soon collided with the small farm exemption. She filed a complaint with OSHA detailing Andrade’s accident, but the federal agency responded that because the dairy had fewer than 11 hired employees (just two, Andrade said), it was not within OSHA’s jurisdiction. The agency said it was prohibited from conducting an investigation.

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“OSHA gave us a paper that said they couldn’t go there,” Fuentes said. “No matter if a worker dies, they cannot go there. They cannot do an inspection, they cannot fine them, they cannot spend one penny on a farm with 11 or less workers,” she said. “This is what the lobby is doing—they found this loophole, and they’re advising all the small farms not to be bothered.”

In places where OSHA does have oversight, it can and has made a difference: while an average of 38 people were killed at work each day nationwide back when the agency was first created, as of 2015, only about 13 people were killed at work each day, even with a workforce almost twice as big.

“At the end of the day, it has to come from regulation setting a playing field,” said Jessica Maxwell, the executive director of the Workers’ Center of Central New York, of improved conditions for workers. “Otherwise, that competition—that race to the bottom of cutting labor costs and increasing production to maximize profits—that’s always a losing game for workers.”

An Unseen, Unsupported Workforce

Though it was against the rules, Salvador snuck Andrade into the on-farm housing of the new dairy where he worked and let him sleep on a broken-down couch in the living room while he recuperated out of sight. “Salvador means ‘savior,’” Andrade noted, telling the story later.

In the months that followed, standing and talking were still painful and difficult, so he spent most of his time on the couch. But when Salvador would bring home groceries after his shift at the dairy—tortillas, rice, beans, meat, potatoes—Andrade would cook them into meals to show his appreciation. “I couldn’t exert myself too much, so I made simple things,” he said.

The absence of protection and support for animal-agriculture workers like Andrade has deep roots in history. They are not—and never have been—subject to the same protections as workers in other industries. The National Labor Relations Act, a federal law enacted in 1935 as part of the New Deal, enables workers to collectively bargain—and specifically excludes most farmworkers. And the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, created a minimum wage, established overtime pay, and put child labor protections in place—and purposefully exempted most farmworkers as well. Its protections for agricultural workers have improved only slightly since.

Aerial view of a North Carolina hog farm. (Photo CC-licensed by Waterkeeper Alliance, Inc.)

Aerial view of a North Carolina hog farm. (Photo CC-licensed by Waterkeeper Alliance, Inc.)

“In the creation of modern labor law regime in the U.S., two sectors were categorically excluded . . . agricultural workers and domestic workers,” said Lambek of Migrant Justice. “You don't need to be a history professor to guess who was performing agricultural and domestic work primarily in the United States in the 1930s. That is, of course, Black people—the descendants of slaves,” he said. “This was a legislative bargain that was deemed necessary to win the support of Southern Democratic senators to pass the landmark labor legislation.” And, he said, it forms the legislative basis for the conditions that we have today, nearly a century later.

The structure of the animal-agriculture industry reinforces workers’ invisibility and inability to access help and support, says Alex Blanchette, a professor of anthropology at Tufts University who worked in pork CAFOs to write the book Porkopolis, about how the standardization and industrialization of factory farms affects the rural communities that house them.

“A 20,000-head-a-day slaughterhouse for hogs might employ 1,000 to 2,000 different people on a single site. People are in constant contact with each other, and unions can form under those conditions,” he said. “But with CAFOs, with industrial animal production, we're talking companies that are splitting production across 500 different barn sites or something like that, spread across a 100-mile-radius region.”

Organizing workers is especially challenging when dealing with a group of workers, “that do not know each other, they all have different formal bosses and a subcontracting relationship, and in turn have minimal legal federal rights to unionize or organize,” Blanchette said.

And without the safeguard of formal OSHA oversight, workers at small livestock operations are at an extreme disadvantage if and when they try to access basic compensation and care for injuries.

That was the case for Andrade, who, in the aftermath of the bull attack, was told he needed to see eye and bone specialists, care he was not able to afford without a job. The Workers’ Center of Central New York put him in touch with immigration and workers’ compensation attorney Jose Perez, who manages about 30 workers’ comp cases per week for farm and animal agriculture workers in central and western New York.

According to Perez, the owner of the dairy farm where Andrade was hurt didn’t carry workers’ compensation insurance because he believed he did not employ enough workers to need it. And according to legal records, he disputed the claim that Andrade was an employee, saying he only hired him for temporary work. The farmer also denied witnessing the injury, according to the records. It was basically one person’s word against another’s, Perez said. “The farmer played dumb—‘I don’t know what happened; I was not there; I didn’t see anything,’” he said.

A farmworker checking on young pigs in a Michigan barn.

Perez litigated the case. “They made many claims,” he said about the farmer. “What really saved us, to be honest, was when we went to get the medical records . . . Lazaro talked to one nurse and explained how the injury happened.” The medical record corroborated Andrade’s account.

Andrade chose to settle in 2016, three years after the injury, for $10,000. When he saw specialists soon after, they advised recasting his broken ribs, which had healed out of alignment, to avoid lifelong pain.

That outcome would likely have been different if OSHA had been allowed to investigate and document what happened after Andrade’s attack, Perez said. “It would have made my case right away.”

In addition to resolving Andrade’s case and getting him the money he needed to see medical specialists sooner, an OSHA investigation may also have resulted in safer conditions on the dairy, Andrade said. “I believe OSHA would have given recommendations to make it safer for the workers, because bulls are big and always aggressive.”

In a Consolidated Industry, Corporations Create the Rules

Even in circumstances where OSHA can intercede, penalties for lives lost and lifelong, debilitating injuries sustained in animal agriculture are often nominal and can vary widely.

For example, in Parks, Nebraska, when an employee at a cattle feedlot became engulfed in grain and suffocated in 2011, OSHA fined the operation $64,000. Minnesota OSHA fined an egg-production facility in Mapleton, Minnesota, $32,350 after an employee became entangled in the rotating shaft of the conveyor system and died in 2018. But the agency in Virginia requested no apparent penalties from a dairy farm in Bridgewater, Virginia, after five people were asphyxiated by gasses in a liquid cow manure pit in 2007. Nor did it assign penalties after an employee was killed by a charging steer at a cattle ranch in Bland, Virginia in 2020.

Still, OSHA did record violations in two of those cases and required that the operations abate health and safety issues. That’s much more accountability than in incidents like Andrade’s, which fall outside the agency’s purview.

Some see farmers as caught in the fray between their workers and the industry. Because the meat and dairy industries are built on efficiency and profit margins are slim, those growers often focus on survival—and simply being able to pay their workers—rather than improving workplace safety.

Lazaro Alvarez Andrade at work at a dairy years after his injury. (Photo courtesy of Lazaro Alvarez Andrade)

Lazaro Alvarez Andrade at work at a dairy years after his injury. (Photo courtesy of Lazaro Alvarez Andrade)

“On small farms, it’s not like people are saying, ‘I want to create an unsafe environment.’ It’s not like they’re saying, ‘I don’t care about my workers,’” said Maggie Gray, a professor of political science at Adelphi University in New York who studies low-wage, non-citizen workers in the food and agriculture industry. “A lot of these smaller farmers, they're trying to do the best they can. And because of the economics of farming, it's really hard for them to have safe workplaces.”

Over the years, Congressional leaders have made attempts to remove the appropriations rider, though all have failed. In 1999, Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) proposed an amendment to give OSHA permission to investigate deaths on small farms if the victims were children. Reed emphasized that the agency would be restricted to determining the cause of the accident and would have no power to impose penalties. The proposal failed in a committee vote.

“A lot of these smaller farmers, they’re trying to do the best they can. And because of the economics of farming, it’s really hard for them to have safe workplaces.”

In recent years, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies appropriations subcommittee, has repeatedly tried to remove the rider from the bill that funds OSHA. “The implications this language has on worker health and safety and racial equity give it no place in our federal spending bill,” she said via email.

While the House labor appropriations committee for fiscal years 2020, 2021, and 2022 removed the provision, she said Republicans refused to remove it from funding legislation, and the rider has gone through each time. “The meat industry continues to push back against sensible protection measures for their workers, prioritizing production and profits over health, safety, and equity,” she wrote.

About a dozen meat, dairy, and poultry trade associations and companies contacted by Civil Eats declined to comment on this characterization or answer detailed questions regarding the industry’s lobbying expenditures and reliance on family farm narratives to discourage regulation.

Dairy cows gather at a farm on July 05, 2022 in Visalia, California. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Dairy cows gather at a farm in Visalia, California. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A few did, however, pointed to voluntary industry safety programs. The North American Meat Institute, which represents the companies that process 95 percent of the pork, beef, and veal in the U.S., said its partners’ Protein PACT aims to reduce 2019 workplace injury levels by 50 percent by 2030.

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Smithfield described its Smithfield Injury Prevention System (SIPS) program, a worker-safety program implemented in 2018 that involves annual audits of all facilities, including farms.

“These initiatives, among others, are responsible for Smithfield’s safety record that not only exceeds our industry peers, but also tracks better than a broad range of non-manufacturing-industry sectors,” said Atkinson, Smithfield’s director of communications, in a statement.

The National Pork Producers Council similarly stressed “agriculture’s proven track record” of developing health and safety management plans and worker safety training programs. “While OSHA regulations cover all farms, pig farmers go beyond regulatory compliance to protect the health and well-being of their employees,” a council representative said in a statement, describing the industry’s investments in on-farm certification and auditing programs and training to support worker safety.

Berkowitz, however, describes the agricultural lobby as "incredibly powerful" and bent on fighting government regulation.

In 2021, for example, the National Pork Producers Council alone spent $2.2 million lobbying at the federal level, and Dairy Farmers of America spent $1.3 million. Individual companies spent nearly as much or more. Tyson Foods spent almost $2 million in 2021; the China-based WH Group, the largest pork company in the world and owner of Smithfield Foods, spent $920,000; and the Brazil-based JBS, the largest meatpacking company in the world, spent $794,000.

The lobby relies on a number of techniques to sway legislation and public opinion, using campaign contributions to influence politicians toward their causes, employing ag gag laws to silence critics, and relying on philanthropic arms that fund things like community centers and child nutrition programs to build goodwill—and distract from the harm they cause.

The meat industry’s arguments against regulation and worker protection are often most strident when they center on the idea of “family farms”—of small, independent, mom-and-pop operations just scraping by, according to numerous interviews, as well as industry statements on proposed legislation. They emphasize that these homespun establishments are the American way and that requiring them to abide by government health and safety standards, like other workplaces, could put them out of business.

In one 2012 example, when the Obama administration tried to pass agricultural child labor laws to protect children from dying on farms (which was happening for teens at a rate more than four times that of those working in non-agriculture industries), the agricultural lobby and its representatives rallied government leaders and the general public the against it.

Though the proposal exempted children who worked on their parents’ farms, it drew vehement criticism from the Farm Bureau as well as Republican lawmakers and a few Democrats, too—all centered on the idea that the protections would prevent farm children from being able to do chores, destroying family farms. More than 70 House lawmakers, led by Representative Denny Rehberg (R-Montana), wrote the Labor Department a letter saying the rule challenged “the conventional wisdom of what defines a family farm in the United States.”

“Even though they specifically exempted any relative,” said Berkowitz, who was leading OSHA at the time, “the farm lobby screamed and yelled at the top of their lungs and got ginned up that this would be the ‘end of the family farms.’” In response, the Labor Department withdrew the proposal.

Hard Realities on the Ground

After a couple months on his friend’s couch, Andrade eventually felt well enough to take a job at another dairy, and he has continued to work at dairies ever since, about 20 in all, ranging in size from small to huge. The largest CAFO he worked for employed about 50 people, all Latino, in demanding 12-hour shifts; he and five others were responsible for milking the operation’s 15,000 cows two to three times a day.

“It’s really work under pressure. You have to finish milking all the cows you’re supposed to,” he said. “You can’t let them go un-milked.”

Absent new legislation and increased scrutiny of animal agriculture, challenges for workers like Andrade continue. Over his near decade in the industry, he said he has never received training from his employers in any language and he has relied instead on word-of-mouth instruction from his colleagues to learn the ropes. Because of this, he has witnessed accidents in addition to his own.

In 2015, a coworker found an unmarked bottle containing a mixture of bleach and acid and, thinking it was liquid soap, applied it to his skin. When he inhaled the fumes, he began to have trouble breathing and talking. Hearing his screams, his coworkers, including Andrade, almost called an ambulance, but the man was able to recover his breath after a few hours without a trip to the hospital. And a few months ago, a near 1,500-pound dairy cow stepped on the foot of a woman he works with, putting her in the hospital and out of work for three months.

Additionally, through the Workers’ Center, Andrade knew a 31-year-old Guatemalan dairy worker named Marco Antonio who was killed in 2014 at a family-owned organic dairy farm in Penn Yan, New York. He had been cleaning an auger in the grain silo—a task he had never been trained to do—when his body got caught and mangled in the rotating machinery.

The lack of training and protocols in the dairy industry—on top of the long hours and demanding work—puts workers at a disadvantage when trying to stay safe. “If there were protocols in place, they would be followed,” said Andrade, who, through his affiliation with the Workers’ Center, has begun speaking out for other workers. “In the pharmaceutical industry where I worked for 40 years, we had written protocols.”

A Milk with Dignity worker in a barn. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice)

Photo credit: Vera Chang

Recounting his experience with his own injury, and OSHA’s limited jurisdiction and ability to help him, Andrade said he believes the agency should play a greater role in protecting the people who produce America’s meat, eggs, and milk.

“The economy in agriculture in the U.S. is based on Latino labor,” Andrade said. “The work is dirty, risky, and poorly paid.” In addition to investigating small farms, the federal agency should be stricter with all farms, he said. “There would be better supervision that way, and better work, and there wouldn’t be as many accidents.”

Gosia Wozniacka contributed reporting to this article.

Next: Workers face long-term respiratory disease inside CAFOs, but protective equipment is scarce and accountability for employers is scarcer. New risk management models shield corporations from liability. Read the full series here.

Christina Cooke is Civil Eats' associate editor. Based in North Carolina, she has also covered people, place, science, business, and culture for venues including The New Yorker, The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, The Guardian, Oxford American, and High Country News. In the past, she has worked as a staff writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee and a weekly paper in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of the documentary writing program at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies and the creative nonfiction writing MFA program at Portland State University, she teaches interviewing and nonfiction writing at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Find out more at www.christinacooke.com. Read more >

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  1. David Johns
    Important story. This sort of work is not safe for humans. It is even less safe for non-humans. It is foolish to think that we can slaughter non-human animals and escape the violence we inflict on them.

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