New L&I agriculture safety team to focus on protecting Washington farmworkers
TUMWATER — As the growing season gets underway, the Washington state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) is taking a major step to help make sure farmworkers are safe on the job.
L&I's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) is launching a new safety team known as the Agriculture Compliance Unit.
When fully staffed, the team will consist of 16 new positions — 13 of which will focus on improving safety and health by performing agriculture worksite inspections and looking into safety complaints. The other three will provide education and outreach to farm operators and employees.
"The health and safety of workers is precious and must never be taken lightly," said Craig Blackwood, DOSH acting assistant director. "We've made real strides toward improving safety in the agriculture industry in our state, but there's a lot of work ahead. This new team will take our efforts to the next level."
Funding for the team was approved in the new state budget signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this week. Longtime L&I safety expert Steve Yunker is leading the agriculture team, which is expected to be in place before the end of this year's growing and harvesting seasons.
Agriculture fatalities increased in 2020
Agriculture is one of the largest and most dangerous industries in Washington. Workers often use heavy machinery and vehicles, work with chemicals and livestock, and work in silos. They're also exposed to bad weather, noise, and dust.
L&I carried out an unprecedented 433 agriculture inspections last year, citing employers for more than 500 violations; yet, the number of farmworker fatalities increased to 14 in 2020 from 10 the previous year.
While three of the deaths were caused by coronavirus (COVID-19), most were the result of workplace hazards that could have been prevented, including several tractor rollovers and machinery-related incidents.
In most cases, L&I safety and health inspectors are assigned to a specific area of the state and cover a variety of workplace safety issues. This new team will work statewide, focusing specifically on improving safety in the agriculture industry by looking for potential hazards that are likely to cause serious injury or death, and working with employers to fix them.
"Having inspectors who are laser-focused on farming should go a long way toward saving lives, preventing injuries, and decreasing lost labor time," said Blackwood.
Resources for farmworkers and employers
L&I has numerous resources and informational materials available for agriculture employers. WISHA 10 for Agriculture training is designed to help farmworkers and employers recognize and eliminate workplace hazards and promote a culture of safety and health through peer training.
L&I's Consultation Program offers confidential, no-fee, professional advice and assistance to Washington businesses. These services can help employers find and fix hazards in their workplaces and strengthen their safety programs.
The agency also hosts annual Agriculture Safety Days each February in Eastern Washington to educate the thousands of agriculture workers in our state. This year's event was held virtually due to the pandemic, yet still drew several hundred people to workshops offered in English and Spanish online.
Dina Lorraine, L&I Public Affairs, 360-972-4868