In California, Cal/OSHA has classified dairy as a “high hazard” industry, and nationwide, dairy occupations are among agriculture’s most dangerous.  Manure lagoons, equipment, falling hay, and even livestock themselves contribute to this risk.  California is ramping up a dairy inspection project, and federal OSHA has established a local dairy focus in Wisconsin and New York.  Dairies are under increasing scrutiny, and the industry must step up its efforts to ensure that workers go home from work in the same condition that they arrived in.

Effective workplace safety begins with a workplace safety plan in writing.  All except the smallest farms in California are required to have an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) in place, and such a written program provides an excellent foundation for a safe workplace. Such a program must require a commitment from owners and managers; if the top authorities care only about production and do not enforce safe practices, then safety will never be the priority for the workforce. “If you see something say something” should be the rule any time management, supervisors, or owners see employees working unsafely. Employees must be accountable, not only through discipline, but in a culture that encourages them to report safety risks so hazards can be addressed before someone gets hurt.  And of course, all workers must be effectively trained in safe work practices.  In dairy, cross training is essential as employees may be called upon to fill in as needed in a variety of positions.  As the dairy workforce is increasingly an immigrant workforce, employers must be careful to provide training in a language that workers understand. 

The primary hazard on dairy farms is machinery, most commonly tractor rollovers, being run over by tractors and entanglement in rotating shafts. Animal-related injuries are the second leading hazard, including kicks, bites and being pinned between animals and fixed objects. Increasingly hay pile or falling hay bales are causing serious accidents and deaths.  Dairy workers are also exposed to chemical hazards, confined space entrapment (e.g., manure lagoons or tanks), use of power tools and improper use or lack of personal protective equipment.  It is critical to identify these hazards and train on them, and then reinforce the training periodically, to create a culture of safety, rather than a culture of risk taking. 

Ongoing self-evaluation is a critical component of any safety program.  Dairy producers should audit the workplace to identify hazards periodically, including discussing dangers that workers encounter.  When workplace accidents and/or injuries occur (and especially “near misses”, the dairy management should resist the temptation to blame the worker for being careless, and should instead investigate and evaluate the cause to see if anything can be done to reduce the risk of a similar future occurrence. 

Safety affects the farm’s bottom line in a variety of ways, from OSHA fines and legal costs to increased workers’ compensation costs, but cost should not be the primary driver in developing and implementing an effective safety program.  The goal should be a reduction of accidents and injuries.  A dairy that is committed to safety will watch its results – are injuries increasing or decreasing.  The most important purpose of any safety program is sending workers home safely.  A workplace fatality is a heartbreaking event for a business, and one all farms should strive to avoid. 

The goal of this article is to provide employers with current labor and employment law information. The contents should not be interpreted or construed as legal advice or opinion. For individual responses to questions or concerns regarding any given situation, the reader should consult with Anthony Raimondo at Raimondo & Associates in Fresno, at (559) 432-3000.