There is much to read in the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration Inspection No. 1125964 (none of it good), but the underlying theme throughout the July 12 report is that what happened to Ruperto Vazquez-Carrera on Feb. 16 could have, and should have, been prevented. Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, Vazquez-Carrera drowned after being trapped in a manure pit by farm machinery at the Sunrise Organic Dairy in Jerome County. The 37-year-old from Hazelton, Idaho, lay in the manure pit for 10 hours before his body was pulled from the muck.
"The one thing in common with nearly every tragedy we investigate is they are all preventable," said OSHA Area Director David Kearns.
The investigation report details Sunrise Organic Dairy owners "did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or like to cause death or serious physical harm to employees in that employees were exposed to immersion drowning hazards in an earthen holding pond [manure pit]."
The manure pit drowning at Sunrise triggered a federal investigation—it also drew attention from the United Farm Workers of America.
"That quickly came on our radar because a year ago, another dairy worker drowned in a manure pit at the Riverview Ranch Dairy in Mabton, Wash.," said Indira Trejo, UFW global impact coordinator, adding that she has traveled to Idaho on numerous occasions to meet with Magic Valley-area workers to talk about conditions at Gem State dairies.
"I heard about a lot of on-the-job accidents, reported and unreported," she said, but was quick to many of those same workers have been reluctant to step forward because if they or any of their family members are undocumented, they live in a shadow of fear despite being the backbone of one of Idaho's largest and most profitable industries.
That's something Kearns and his investigators know all too well.
"We have vulnerable workers out there—specifically Latino workers—and it's challenging for us to contact them," Kearns said. "In this particular investigation, I attempted to contact some of them, but they didn't return the phone calls. We sent them letters by mail. Hopefully, they have someone to help them translate it."
Kearns said approximately half of the fatalities the OSHA Idaho office investigated in 2015 were workers for whom English was not their first language.
"They may fear deportation; they're open to exploitation," he told BW in early June. "They're afraid of the federal government and they don't know the difference between OSHA and ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]."
For violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Sunrise Organic Dairy was ordered to install appropriate barriers and warning signs identifying the location of the manure pit. Additionally, the violation—technically deemed "serious"—carries a fine of $4,900.
"The fines were mandated by the U.S. Congress," said Kearns. When asked about the low fine for such a grisly fatality, Kearns said fine amounts were last updated by Congress in 1990, with a maximum of $7,000 for a serious violation. He also said, in 2015, Congress passed a new law mandating OSHA update those fines to bring them in line with inflation. Effective Monday, Aug. 1, fine amounts will increase about 78 percent.
OSHA also cited Sunrise Organic Dairy for an "other-than-serious" violation for not keeping logs of work-related injuries or illnesses at the dairy. The violation triggered a $700 fine; owners have 15 working days to respond and may ask for a negotiating session with OSHA or an appeal hearing before a federal judge.
Kearns said Sunrise owners have been "very professional" and cooperative with the probe.
"After a tragedy, these people almost always say, 'I never wanted to get anybody hurt.' They wish they had done more. It's one of those terrible hindsight things," said Kearns. "Good people want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, most employers haven't done enough to look at how workers should be protected."
This is a particularly busy time for Kearns and his team of investigators. In a few weeks, they'll release their findings of another high-profile tragedy at an Idaho job site. On May 3, two workers were killed and another was seriously injured when a trench collapsed in a northwest Boise neighborhood.
"And you should expect that report in the next 30 days," Kearns said. "That's our goal."