Richard Longo spends a lot of time in meetings with farmworkers and their employers talking about driver safety.
The Department of Labor Wage and Hour administrator recalled one meeting in which he emphasized the importance of wearing a seat belt. The next day, a van transporting farmworkers to work rolled over.
“No one was injured or died because they were all wearing belts,” Longo said.
“Transportation incidents,” including tractor accidents, were the deadliest threat to farmworkers nationwide in 2020, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
And as the days shorten and precipitation increases, so, too, does the danger of driving to and from work.
“You have this mix of things that add to the situation that probably make it more dangerous,” Longo said.
Agricultural workers:Oregon’s contract labor system leaves farmworkers vulnerable to exploitation
Farmworkers often work in remote areas accessed by narrow, winding roads. Bad weather adds another hazard.
Farmworkers also work long hours, Longo said, which means they drive in the dark and sometimes fatigued.
“All those things make differences,” Longo said. “It becomes cumulative.”
Deadliest month, day, hour
The most recent data from the Oregon Department of Transportation show the rate of fatal crashes increased in 2020 compared to the previous year.
There were 38,141 crashes in Oregon in 2020. Of those, 460 were fatal and 19,343 resulted in non-fatal injuries.
A total of 574 people died in car accidents in 2020 — a 2.6% increase compared to the previous year.
Fridays were the most dangerous day to drive in 2020, and 5-6 p.m. was the most dangerous hour. January was the most dangerous month.
According to OHSU’s Occupational Fatality Report, 46 Oregon agricultural workers were killed in transportation incidents between 2010-2020.
The Department of Labor tracks accidents by region. In Oregon, California and Washington, eight agricultural workers have died and more than 30 have been injured this year.
Nationwide, 271 agricultural workers died in transportation-related accidents in 2020, out of 589 agricultural worker fatalities.
Contractor fined for local fatal crash
Three farmworkers were killed and 10 more injured driving home near Salem from working at a Christmas tree farm in 2019. A pickup truck collided with a van carrying 15 passengers and a driver as the van turned left at an intersection.
An investigation from the Department of Labor found the driver of the van had a suspended license and had failed to register as an employee of the farm labor contractor for whom he was working.
JMG Labor Contractor paid $32,500 in penalties, according to the Department of Labor.
The Department of Labor found the labor contractor responsible for the 2019 crash, but Longo said he wants people to know that safe transportation is “everyone’s responsibility.”
“Some people out there might not agree,” Longo said. “Just think of it as: Worker safety is important to everyone. There is a worker shortage; the last thing we need is workers not being able to work.”
Farm labor contractors who transport workers to and from worksites are required to register and insure all vehicles and drivers. Longo said the Department of Labor has also held growers responsible for accidents that happened to employees who were working for a labor contractor.
“If you’re bringing in a work crew from 150 miles away, how did you not cause that?” Longo said. “It’s a pretty wide umbrella. You don’t have to be a direct employer to be liable for transportation.”
‘We’re trying to save lives’
The Department of Labor takes claims about transportation safety “very seriously,” Longo said. But he wants to improve safety on the road before such claims are necessary.
“Really, enforcing it after the fact is not what we want to do,” Longo said. “We’re trying to save lives.”
Longo said the Department of Labor hosts meetings with agricultural employers and employees “year-in and year-out.” The biggest point it stresses is seat belts.
“Even when everything’s against them, wearing seat belts will more than likely save their lives,” Longo said.
If that’s all workers take away from the Department of Labor’s outreach, he said, it is enough.
Wearing a seatbelt also requires that passengers are seated in a proper seat. Longo said that’s another thing he stresses to workers and employers: No matter the distance, “you need to have a seat.”
Sitting in the bed of a pickup truck or atop a five-gallon bucket — both examples of things Longo has heard or seen — increases the risk.
“You can’t control for long workdays or big travel,” Longo said. “Those realities probably aren’t going to change. So you have to work around those realities.”
Shannon Sollitt covers agricultural workers through Report for America, a program that aims to support local journalism and democracy by reporting on under-covered issues and communities. Send tips, questions and comments to email@example.com.