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Farms More Dangerous than Coal Mines

Next to farm, coal mine a haven
By Dan Moffett
PALM BEACH POST, February 5, 2006

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin last week called for all coal companies in the state to shut down for safety checks after two more mine workers were killed in separate incidents.

The governor ordered inspections for 544 surface and underground mines. He also pushed a mine-safety bill through the state legislature that requires coal companies to provide miners with emergency communicators and tracking devices.

Gov. Manchin was responding to a spate of mine tragedies that began a month ago when an explosion at the International Coal Group Inc.’s Sago Mine led to the death of 12 men. Less than three weeks after Sago, two miners died in a belt fire 180 miles away.

If Joe Manchin were governor of Florida, he would shut down the agriculture industry.

Its safety record is worse than the coal mines of West Virginia. If you’re a Florida farmworker, you face danger before, during and after work and take home minimum wages for your trouble.

Since 1992, job-related transportation accidents have killed 83 farmworkers and injured more than 400, according to an Associated Press analysis of state and federal records. Only California, with three times as many farmworkers, had more deaths than Florida.

Most of Florida’s fatalities occurred in rollover accidents involving farm vans loaded beyond their capacity. In 2004, a 15-passenger van packed with 19 workers overturned on Interstate 95 near Fort Pierce, killing nine Mexican migrants. Another in St. Lucie County killed two more farmworkers.

Typically, large farms hire subcontractors to transport workers to the fields. It’s a nice way for big companies to avoid liability. The vans often have makeshift seats and are poorly maintained. Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, tried to get a bill through the Legislature last year that would require farm vans to have seat belts – no expensive, sophisticated safety devices, just seat belts. She failed, but her bill appears likely to pass during the next session, at long last.

Let’s say your van makes it to the field without incident. The next danger you face is pesticide poisoning.

Florida growers use more pesticides per acre than anywhere in the nation yet government oversight is virtually nonexistent. The state has 20 inspectors to check more than 40,000 growing operations. Last year, inspectors visited 600 of them, leaving 39,400 to monitor themselves. At this rate, it will take 60 years or so for the state to visit every farm.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is responsible for inspections, which is like letting the fraternity police the keg party. The agency has long and deep ties to agrochemical companies and farmers. Is there any wonder that, of the 74 farms inspected last year based on complaints from workers or advocates, the department issued fines of just $8,000? A study by The Post found that during a 10-year period, state inspectors uncovered 4,609 pesticide violations but assessed fines in only 7.6 percent of the cases.

In April, The Post reported the discovery of three Immokalee infants with severe birth defects. Their mothers were migrant farmworkers who say they were exposed to pesticide spraying while pregnant and working for Ag-Mart Produce.

News of the babies’ deformities moved the state to investigate Ag-Mart. Inspectors found that the company repeatedly violated harvesting and field reentry rules that require a waiting period before returning to work after spraying. The state found 88 violations. The fine was a record $111,200.

Stories of chemical exposure – and the rashes, lesions, illness and shortened life spans that go with them – are so common among farmworkers that they don’t bother telling them. They certainly are reluctant to tell officials.

This is another way farmworkers are vulnerable that coal miners aren’t. Florida agriculture is dependent on an illegal work force, and people without immigration status have a lot to risk when they complain. So they don’t.

The Legislature is scheduled to consider reform measures to improve pesticide inspections. There’s talk of hiring 10 more inspectors. Ten.

If Joe Manchin tried shutting down Florida’s farms until inspectors got around to checking them, we’d be waiting until, what, about 2066?