Dairy farms can be a dangerous workplace. Between 2006 and 2015, there have been 69 dairy farm fatalities, according to data compiled by the New York state Department of Health.
By Carly Fox and Rebecca Fuentes | Special to Syracuse.com
We didn’t personally know Ryan C. Ouellette, the dairy worker who was killed in a tragic workplace “accident” Nov. 19, 2017, at Marks Farm, a factory farm on the southern border of the Adirondacks in Lowville, but we are deeply saddened by his death. Ouellette died after his head became trapped in a manure separator machine. This tragedy occurred on the eve of our nation’s day to give thanks for food and family. Despite years of efforts by farmworkers and advocates to improve health and safety conditions at Marks Farm, dairy farmworkers continue to be exposed to significant risks of injury and death that are ultimately preventable.
In 2013, worker advocates began conducting worker rights trainings at Marks Farm and assisted a worker with a complaint to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) about the lack of protective equipment and safety training on the farm. OSHA fined the farm $500.
Two years later, a worker was physically assaulted and fired by Mike Tabolt, a manager and the son-in-law of the farm owner. The worker had questioned management when called in to work at the last minute on his day off. Tabolt was charged with harassment in the second degree, a violation. We were told by the Lewis County prosecutor that the charge was adjourned in contemplation of dismissal for six months upon Tabolt’s completion of five anger management courses. Once he satisfied those conditions, it’s as if it never happened.
After other safety and health issues continued, the workers decided to form a health and safety committee. When the farm owner became aware of the workers organizing the committee, the owner promptly fired the worker leaders. (In New York state, farmworkers are currently excluded from legal protections for exercising the right to organize.) Marks Farm knew it could fire workers overnight without facing any consequences. The message was clear: Speak up about health and safety concerns, and you can be fired. To date, workers at Marks Farms say they still lack basic protective equipment and are treated with disrespect on the job.
This act of retaliation led to the historic lawsuit Hernandez v. New York, which argues that the exclusion of farmworkers from labor protections violates the New York state Constitution’s guarantee that all workers have the right to organize in pursuit of humane and just working conditions. Gov. Andrew Cuomo agrees the exclusion, which stems from racial bias in the 1930s, is unconstitutional, but the New York State Farm Bureau has intervened to try and defeat the lawsuit. The suit is pending.
In 2017, we were part of a team who published “Milked,” an extensive study about immigrant workers in the Nw York state dairy industry. It argues that farm exemptions from safety oversight, combined with increasing dependence on an immigrant workforce, have led to degraded work conditions, including increased risk of occupational injury. According to the New York state Department of Health, from 2006 to 2015, there have been 69 dairy farm fatalities in this state alone. Workers who lack basic protection from retaliation are much less likely to come forward about dangerous working conditions.
All New Yorkers should expect that basic health and safety protocols would be in place at a dairy farm with the production scale of Marks Farm. How many more workplace injuries and fatalities will it take for lasting improvements in workplace safety to occur? Workers should never have to pay the price with their lives.