DEATH AT THE RIVERVIEW RANCH DAIRY
By JEFF JOHNSON
(April 7, 2015) — On Tuesday, Feb. 24, Randy Vasquez said goodbye to his wife and children and went to work at the Riverview Ranch Dairy, 1220 Vance Road in Mabton, Wash. He never returned.
Randy, 27, worked as a milker on the night shift. At around 9 p.m., about an hour before milking, he took the front loader out to feed the cattle. Randy did not milk cows that night. He was found at 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 25 strapped into the front loader sunk six feet deep in a manure lagoon. Randy died of “asphyxiation due to inhalation of dairy waste water sludge,” according to the Yakima County coroner. Randy drowned to death in cow manure.
Conflicting reports put deaths on Washington state dairies at between 10 and 13 since the year 2000. In the Western region’s 4,150 dairies, 18 workplace deaths have been reported between 2003-2009.
Dairy work is considered to be one of the most hazardous occupations, with injury rates 50% higher than most private industry jobs. Dairy workers breath foul air containing bacteria and manure dust for 10 to 12 hours per shift, moving quickly over slick cement floors, and are frequently kicked and stepped on by 1,500-pound animals. Dairy workers typically get one day off between work schedules of five to six consecutive 12-hour work days. (See “The Dark Side of Dairies,” High Country News, for more information.)
Since only 1% of dairies in the West are inspected in any given year, agriculture is not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, and most dairy workers are not documented, the only real law governing dairies is that of the supervisor and the owner. Dairy workers do not have an effective voice at the workplace because they live in fear of deportation. Routinely, dairy workers do not get rest or meal breaks making fatigue another work place hazard.
Washington state, with about 500 licensed dairy farms, has the third most dairy farms in the West behind California and Idaho. The average dairy has 550 cows, but some have as many as 5,000. Three Mile Canyon Dairy in Oregon, organized by the United Farm Workers (UFW), has more than 13,000 cows.
While John Banks, the owner of River Ranch, is shaken over this workplace death, a few questions need to be answered by both him and the Washington State Farm Bureau, which runs his “Retrospective Rating Workers’ Compensation and Safety Program.”
Since Randy Vasquez didn’t return to the milking sheds by the 10 p.m. milking shift, why didn’t a search for Randy begin before the next morning’s shift started at 4:30 a.m.? Why isn’t the manure lagoon (pictured at right) marked, lit, and fenced? Who is responsible for the health and safety of dairy workers at River Ranch Dairy?
These questions and others were posed by the UFW’s Indira Trejo and Martin Rios at a demonstration and vigil in front of Darigold’s Seattle headquarters on March 31. John Kennely, assistant general counsel of Darigold, was asked what level of responsibility does Darigold take for ensuring that their cooperative’s member dairies provide safe and healthy work environments. Kennely repeatedly said that they “regret the accident but could not make any comments until after the Labor and Industries investigation.”
TAKE A STAND — Click here to ask Darigold what protections will be put in place to prevent future tragedies.
In the meantime, Randy Vasquez, leaves behind a wife, 28-year-old Nubia Guajardo Ayala, and two children, Jazzlyn (2) and Jayzaiah (3).
Our hearts break at this senseless and avoidable workplace death, and we will work with Labor and Industries and the UFW on making dairies safer places to work. But in Randy’s memory we want to ask you to help us support his wife and her two young children with your generous contributions.
Please make checks out to the WSLC, with Randy Vasquez written in the memo line, and send them to us at the Washington State Labor Council, 321 16th Ave. South, Seattle, WA, 98144. We will send the donations and the names of the contributors are sent to his wife, Nubia.
Thank you for your kindness.
Jeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the Evergreen State, representing the interests of more than 500 local unions and 400,000 rank-and-file union members.