Harvest season is in full swing in Malheur County. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)
Malheur County has seen a steady but low rate of injuries in agriculture in recent years, according to state data.
Farm safety has come into sharp focus locally following two recent deaths.
Last year in Malheur County, around 1,000 people made their living from crop and animal production. That same year saw 17 reportable injuries in those industries in the county, according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Data from OSHA, the federal worker safety agency, classifies reportable injuries as those that lead to hospitalization, loss of an eye, or amputations.
From 2013 to 2018, agriculture in Malheur County saw a high of 20 such injuries reported in 2013 to a low of nine in 2015.
[ KEEP YOUR LOCAL NEWS STRONG – SUBSCRIBE ]
“It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions, the general principle is that it appears that over time it’s a fairly steady line,” said Michael Wood, administrator at Oregon OSHA. “Things aren’t necessarily getting a lot worse. It also appears they’re not getting a whole lot better.”
Since 2013, the county has seen three reported fatalities in the agriculture industry. Two of those deaths took place in less than a month. In September, a 32-year-old farmworker lost his life after being entangled in a drip-tape roller in an onion field near Brogan. Earlier this month, local farmer Ted Frahm, 42, died while working on an onion harvester north of Nyssa.
While Wood said the county’s numbers are too small to reach conclusions, he stressed that such fatalities generate an increased awareness of the risks that were probably already there.
“It could just as easily have occurred in all those other years,” Wood said.
He said that the tragedies can sometimes be a “teachable moment,” reminding employers that no workplace is entirely safe.
“I think we’ll probably have more opportunity to engage with employers in Malheur County because we’ll get more consultation requests and more will be looking at our resources online,” Wood added.
With harvest season in full swing, farm safety is a priority for local businesses.
“It’s our No. 1 concern,” said Grant Kitamura, general manager and part owner of the onion packing firm Baker & Murakami Produce Co. in Ontario. “We have programs in place and we stress safety every day.”
Kitamura said his operation emphasizes wearing safety vests and taking regular breaks. The company also has a safety officer who heads regular training sessions.
Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa, said the company works hard to stress safety.
“We have regular safety meetings and a safety committee that includes people who are on the crew and we have them make suggestions for things that can be done,” Riley said.
Wood said one of the best things employers can do to boost safety at their sites is get free consultations from OSHA.
“Employers can actually have at their request one of our safety and health professionals visit their work sites and talk to them about the issues they’re facing and how best to address those hazards,” Wood said.
He added that the consultations are no-risk. They have no connection to the agency’s enforcement program and are designed to educate employers in ways to avoid injuries.
Wood said the agency has two consultants in Pendleton and others in Bend who work together to cover eastern Oregon.
One reason OSHA promotes consultations, according to Wood, is that advice can be tailored to each individual site.
“Agriculture is broad,” Wood said. “It’s not really an industry. It’s multiple industries. There are a lot of differences between the risks faced by someone doing cattle ranching and someone doing wheat farming.”
Wood said OSHA conducts around 2,500 consultations a year in the state compared to around 3,500 enforcement visits. While many employers take advantage of the consultation offer, Wood said many more could.
From 2013 to 2018, OSHA found 277 violations in Malheur County.
Of those violations, 167 were classified as “serious,” leading to $46,765 in initial penalties.
SAIF, the state’s workers’ compensation insurer, also offers resources and training specific to agriculture, such as their annual Agricultural Safety Seminars. The next local seminar is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 29, in Ontario.
Both OSHA and SAIF are also beefing up their Spanish-language training. Oregon OSHA will offer its first safety conference in Spanish on Nov. 19 at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem. Although the conference is not specific to agriculture, it will address workplace safety.
SAIF will offer a webinar entirely in Spanish next March. Although SAIF does not currently offer Spanish-language lessons in Malheur County during its annual seminars, it recently partnered with OSHA to provide more resources locally in the language.
“We recently identified a need for Spanish-preferred lead workers to get additional guidance around supervision and accident investigation,” said Kevin Kilroy, a senior safety management consultant at SAIF who works with businesses in Malheur County.
The classes were held in August at Treasure Valley Community College and 24 people attended.
Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
SUBSCRIBE TO HELP PRODUCE VITAL REPORTING — For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.