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Dairy manure ponds just one deadly hazard in agricultural work

The Idaho Statesman recently published a major story on the dangers of agricultural work, and especially the hazards associated with manure ponds. While the focus was on Idaho, there's no reason the accidents described in the story couldn't have occurred here in Georgia.

Manure ponds are a common way for dairies to store manure for later use as fertilizer and to keep it from preventing waterways. The trouble is that some dairies fail to post warning signs or encircle the ponds with barriers. When conditions change, such as when flooding occurs, the pond can literally disappear into the landscape.

Manure pond accidents and drownings occurred in Idaho and four other states over the past three years, according to OSHA records. Those records explicitly note that "drowning in manure ponds is widely known in the dairy industry," according to the story.

Yet manure accidents account for a mere fraction of overall agriculture-related deaths. It's one of the nation's most dangerous industries. Between 2003 and 2011, over 5,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. died on the job. That's a rate seven times greater than in workplaces overall.

Unfortunately, in 2013 Idaho's OSHA began noticing what it called a "dramatic uptick" in agricultural fatalities. That trend has continued.

"That raised a flag to us, that there was something happening out there," said the local area director. "We're dealing with vulnerable workers in very unique and continually changing situations."

Agriculture is a common occupation for immigrant and migrant workers who often do not realize they have workers' compensation rights after an injury, or that they can report dangerous conditions to OSHA.

It's difficult to tell if the same is true in Georgia. There are special rules for small farms which make a tally of injuries and fatalities difficult to obtain. Moreover, this spring Congress rolled back a rule passed under the Obama Administration that allowed OSHA to mandate ongoing recordkeeping for agricultural and other employers. The Trump Administration has also delayed a rule that would have made accident records available online to the public.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to have little data, as well. However, it does note that agricultural workers suffer injuries and fatalities at a greater rate than other workers.

What is being done to prevent manure pond accidents and other farm worker injuries and deaths in Georgia? It's difficult to say. In the meantime, take a careful survey of any manure pond on the dairy farm or ranch where you work. Mark its location and consider it a deadly hazard.

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