State and federal dignitaries echoed one another, during AgSafe’s Innovation virtual conference, in vocalizing high praise for America’s agriculture community amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Secretary of California’s Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), Karen Ross stated, “I hope that every American that uses a knife, spoon, and a fork on a daily basis is thankful to our farmworkers, our farmers, and our ranchers. Because they never stopped. Even when it was hot, even when there were welt fires, even when there was COVID.”
Secretary Ross, along with the other dignitaries that spoke, thanked the agriculture community for their uninterrupted work to keep food on the Nation’s dinner table during “a year like no other” (K. Ross, Secretary CDFA).
The comprehensive event was anchored by a two-day track on state and federal regulatory compliance. Presenters offered tips for compliance and regulatory updates on everything from payroll, paid sick leave, safety, and a robust update on COVID-19’s impact on the health and safety of agriculture workers. This blog entry focuses on COVID-19’s impact on the agriculture community.
Chief of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health of California (Cal/OSHA), Douglas Parker, announced that agricultural work continues to be among California’s most dangerous occupations. In 2019, there were 451 occupational-related fatalities in the state, 48 of which occurred in agriculture. (USBLS 2019) According to Chief Parker, this equates to 13.9 fatal injuries per 100,000 ag workers, which is greater than five times the overall rate of 2.5 for all industries.
The data show that this trend will rise into 2020 due to the prevalence of COVID-19 related deaths among agriculture workers. Since February 2020, 690 deaths have been reported and are being investigated by Cal/OSHA for work-relatedness, with 33 of those deaths reported in agriculture.
Cal/OSHA believes that the number of COVID-19 related deaths reported in agriculture is a “significantly low number” (D. Parker, Chief Cal/OSHA) that may be much higher. This is based on a comparison with preliminary data received from California’s Department of Public Health (CDPH) that suggests that more than 1000 deaths in California from COVID-19 have been traced to agricultural workers, irrespective of work-relatedness.
“[The Data] does suggest that the numbers being reported to us by employers are in all likelihood underreported,” stated Chief Parker.
During the federal fiscal year of October 2019 to September 2020, Reporting Fatalities and Serious Injuries was among the top five commonly cited violations by Cal/OSHA.
Theresa Kiehn, AgSafe President and CEO, stated, “The agriculture community continues to respond to challenges unique to our industry that have been brought on by COVID-19. AgSafe is immensely grateful for all of the brave men and women who have continued to work tirelessly amid a global pandemic.”
Cal/OSHA has been inundated with COVID-19 related complaints. From February 1, 2020 to February 21, 2021, Cal/OSHA received approximately 11,500 complaints from all industries, 213 complaints were from agriculture, with 91 reported serious illnesses. As a result, Cal/OSHA has opened 312 COVID-19 related inspections making agriculture the only industry having more investigations than reported complaints or worker fatalities, other than health care.
According to Chief Parker, the low number of complaints in agriculture may indicate a reluctance by employees to report violations. Employers should consider this as they formulate their education and training programs for employees. Open communication with employees can aid in making sure they understand their rights and their ability to report their concerns about COVID-19.
In addition to the massive enforcement effort commemorated by the data above, Cal/OSHA feels that it has provided a large amount of compliance assistance. The compliance assistance was aimed at ensuring that employers understood their obligations and to verify that they were utilizing the compliance guidance that the Administration was providing.
Chief Parker spent time discussing Cal/OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). The Administration’s Standards Board promulgated the ETS that went into effect on November 30, 2020. The temporary standards cover COVID-19 Prevention, Multiple COVID-19 Infections and COVID-19 Outbreaks, Major COVID-19 Outbreaks, and COVID-19 Prevention in Employer-Provided Housing and Transportation. Housing and transportation are two areas that are critical to the agriculture industry.
Cal/OSHA’s ETS were issued as emergency regulations. This means that the rules package was not subject to the same type of public input before adoption compared to non-emergency regulatory adoptions. The Standards Board structured its order to accommodate putting the rules into effect and then having the ability to receive public input to adjust the rules accordingly after enactment.
Cal/OSHA’s Advisory Committee meetings were held on December 18, 2020, February 11, 12, and 16, 2021 to receive employer and worker input on the new rules. Suggestions for amending the ETS to create more flexibility in the rules governing the two critical areas that impact agriculture, housing and transportation, were received. According to Chief Parker, Cal/OSHA is taking a “serious look” at the standards in these two areas for appropriate revisions based on stakeholder input. Committee meetings will be available online shortly for viewing.
In addition to Chief Parker and Secretary Ross, dignitaries from California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, Department of Pesticide Regulation, U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Internal Revenue Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were on hand for AgSafe’s annual conference.
Taking the lead from Secretary Ross, I’d like to extend a very sincere thank you to all of the farmworkers, farmers, and ranchers that have put their well-being at risk during this unprecedented time in our nation’s history to ensure our dinner tables and pantries remain full.