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Workplace deaths rise in Idaho

In late February, a worker on a Melba farm died, apparently after being electrocuted by a fence. Details about the fatality won’t be released until the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Idaho office concludes its investigation, but David Kearns, director of the Boise headquarters, says this much: More people are dying on Idaho job sites than in previous years.

Agriculture, logging and residential construction have an attitude problem regarding workplace safety, Kearns contends.

“In some industries, there are major cultural barriers to accepting safety rules and practices,” he says. “They are very anti-regulation mindset that’s very free, very, ‘we-don’t-want-to-do-what-we’re-told.’ ”

2014 was an especially bad year for Idaho farm deaths. Workers at farms in Shelley, Wendell and Jerome died after being struck or backed into by heavy trucks or equipment. Workers at a Buhl dairy and a Blackfoot alfalfa farm died after rolling all-terrain vehicles. Vehicle rollovers are the most common cause of agriculture deaths, Kearns says.

A worker at a Heyburn cattle feed company died after becoming caught in a feed mixer.

All but one of the farm victims were either non-English speakers or spoke English as a second language, Kearns says. Latinos make up more than half of the U.S. agriculture workforce, he says, and many come from countries without safety regulations.

“I think fear of deportation also plays a role,” Kearns says. “If they have safety training, it’s not even in a language they understand.”

Idaho businesses are required to report fatal incidents to OSHA within eight hours, but Kearns says he can’t be sure that his office learns of every death. The Melba death wasn’t reported for a month. In another case, an employee reported a co-worker’s death several days after the incident, Kearns says.

“We later heard from both the employer and the worker that the worker was fired for contacting us, as well as for other reasons,” Kearns says. “Now we’re investigating both the fatality and a possible violation of OSHA’s whistleblower statute.”

Another part of the problem is an agricultural culture in which workers inexpertly dabble in high-skill tasks, such as welding and engine work, he says.

“For a lot of folks out there, your job and your home are essentially the same thing, and that changes the whole mindset,” Kearns says. “There are long, irregular hours and little safety training. You learn from watching your dad, who learned from watching his dad. It’s that sort of thing, and it’s caused a lot of tragedies.”

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