JEROME, Idaho — Alberto Navarro Munoz had been working on the farm for only two weeks when he encountered one of the most gruesome hazards that a dairy worker can face. His tractor tipped over into a pit of cow manure, submerging the Mexican native under several feet of a “loose thick somewhat liquid-like substance,” according to the police report documenting his death in southern Idaho.
Another immigrant laborer jumped in to try to save Munoz, but told authorities “there was nothing he could do.” Munoz, whose body was later retrieved by the fire department, died of traumatic asphyxiation.
Munoz’s death, which occurred in the nearby town of Shelley last September, was one of two fatal accidents last year involving dairymen who either choked or drowned in pits of cow manure. Another laborer from Mexico died last month after he was crushed by a skid loader, used to move feed and manure.
The deaths have rattled Idaho’s dairy industry as well as local immigrant communities that do the bulk of the work producing nearly 15 billion pounds of milk annually on the industrial-sized farms in the state’s southern prairie. As farms have transitioned from family operations into big businesses involving thousands of cows and massive machinery, new safety concerns have emerged.
Agricultural workers suffer fatal on-the-job injuries at a very high rate — far higher than police officers and more than twice the rate of construction workers in 2015, the last year for which comprehensive records are available.
Farms have become increasingly reliant on immigrant workers, who often have minimal training or experience dealing with dangerous equipment and large animals. That has left farm laborers especially vulnerable to workplace deaths, such as being electrocuted, crushed by tractors, kicked by a heifer or beat up by a bull.
Despite injury rates far exceeding other industries, the agriculture industry receives relatively light federal oversight of worker safety. Regulations established when farms were more likely to be small, family operations haven’t kept up with the rapidly consolidating industry. Historically, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has taken a hands-off approach, conducting inspections when there is only a report of a serious accident or fatality.
The agency imposed fines of about $5,000 on the farms involved in the manure pond deaths. Most farms with fewer than 11 employees don’t have to report such incidents.
Particularly on dairy farms, where workers care for 1,500-pound animals that together generate more waste in a day than a medium-sized city, this creates an underclass of workers who spend hours hauling excrement but are largely unprotected by labor safety standards.
There were 6,700 injuries on dairy farms with more than 11 employees in 2015 — a rate more than double the average for private industries. On those farms, 43 laborers died.
“Workers are extremely worried, and there is a consensus that government is not doing enough, and neither are employers, in ensuring safety precautions,” said Benjamin Reed, who hosts a Spanish call-in radio program aimed at local agricultural workers in Idaho. “Some of these farms are dirty, nasty and full of flies and there are a lot of these manure ponds filled with fecal matter and urine.”