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June 9, 2016

Dairy and Death in New York State

by Margaret Gray, Ph.D.
Milk is promoted as nature’s perfect food. More than any other food, milk taps into idyllic nostalgia for farm life and the marketing of dairy products takes advantage of milk’s prized position. Yet, dairy farming is dangerous and fatalities are too common, especially on New York’s smaller farms.

The statistics are telling. New York—ranked third in dairy production in the country—saw 61 fatalities on dairy farms from 2006 to 2014, according to the New York State Department of Health. The main causes of dairy death are tractor rollovers and entanglement in other farm machinery.

New York’s dairy farm fatalities outstrip those of California, the nation’s leader in dairy production. From 2007 to 2012, New York saw 34 dairy farm deaths, while California, which regularly produced more than three times as much milk as New York during that time, had 14 fatalities.

Overall from 2007 to 2012, New York’s fatality rate per 100,000 workers was 2.4, but it was 35.8 in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The next highest industry was construction, with 8.3.

Why is dairy farming so dangerous in New York State?

One factor to consider is the growth of the dairy industry. Between 2008 and 2013, the state saw a 187 percent increase in milk production. In comparison, the previous 63 years saw a 400 percent increase, according to research published by the Journal of Animal Science. Greek yogurt, in particular, has driven the growth. It requires three times as much milk as regular yogurt, and has led to intensified production practices on dairy farms. The Buffalo News reported that between 2008 and 2012, New York Greek yogurt sales increased from 2.5 percent of the U.S. market to 36 percent.

Dr. Maggie Gray, associate professor of political science at Adelphi.

Dr. Gray is an associate professor of
political science at Adelphi.

Farmers are concerned that the Greek yogurt trend might be short-lived, so instead of increasing the number of cows and workers, some farms are extracting more from both. When workers and farmers toil long hours, decision-making can be compromised. I have met many a worker who regularly puts in a 16-hour shift. How’s your decision-making capacity after 12 or 14 straight hours of work?

Several other factors have coalesced to create dangerous conditions on dairy farms. On some farms, farmers and their families are shifting from doing the labor to managing the labor, which requires a very different skill set. We are seeing a technical modernization of dairy farms without a corresponding professionalization. Management can be a challenge if the workforce doesn’t speak English and lacks prior experience on dairy farms. The number of Latino workers on dairy farms who fit this description has steadily been increasing.

The inequality between workers and employers and workers’ lack of legal status also create fear for workers who cannot afford to risk deportation or job loss by asking for improved conditions. Rumors of such risks or previous experiences with employer intimidation make workers even more reluctant to speak up about working conditions.

Finally, farms tend to normalize risk. Fatalities and injuries are often seen as accidents, even when they were preventable.

So what is being done? In 2014 the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implemented a Local Emphasis Program targeting New York’s dairy industry. The program includes an effort to get workplaces to meet safety regulations, which is accomplished through OSHA training programs and partnerships among farm industry organizations to educate farmers about safety measures. The Local Emphasis Program training is followed by surprise inspections of dairy farms—federal OSHA representatives tour a farm with a health and safety checklist and farmers can be fined for not meeting the standards. The goal is to use the threat of fines to limit illness, injury and death in the industry—among farmers, their families and their workers.

The Local Emphasis Program is a step in the right direction, and I’ve spoken to dairy workers who report improved conditions. Some workers say they are receiving safety training for the first time, even though they have been on farms for years.

A significant downside to the OSHA program is that it only covers farms with 11 or more workers as Congress has deemed the regulations too burdensome for smaller businesses. Even a fatality on a dairy farm with fewer than 11 non-family employees would not trigger an OSHA investigation.

Of the 34 deaths on dairy farms between 2007 and 2012, OSHA inspected four. The other 30 were not inspected because they occurred on smaller farms.

In dairy, small is more dangerous. Milking cows in modern times is a highly industrialized operation with corresponding industrial dangers. When will the next dairy death be one too many?

Dr. Gray is an associate professor of political science at Adelphi. 

This piece was published in AU VU, Spring 2016 issue.
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