New L&I group to focus on safety of farmworkers

by Staff report
| June 14, 2021 1:00 AM

TUMWATER — The Washington state Department of Labor & Industries, L&I, says it is taking a major step to help farmworkers be safe on the job. L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health is launching a new safety team known as the Agriculture Compliance Unit.

Funding for the new group was approved in the new state budget signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, L&I said.

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, L&I said.

“The health and safety of workers is precious and must never be taken lightly,” said Craig Blackwood, DOSH acting assistant director in a press release. “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.”

Longtime L&I safety expert Steve Yunker is leading the agriculture team. The agency expects the group to be in place before the end of this year’s growing and harvesting seasons.

L&I says it 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. Three of the deaths were caused by the coronavirus.

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 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,” Blackwood in a press release.

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, L&I stated.

The agency also hosts annual Agriculture Safety Days each February in Eastern Washington to educate agriculture workers. This year’s event was held virtually due to the pandemic yet drew several hundred people to workshops offered in English and Spanish online, L&I stated.