Last winter’s tragic death at a Mabton dairy has prompted a legislative response that may or may not prevent future fatalities. The problem is, we don’t have enough information about the worker’s death to know for sure whether the bill would be effective, which points to the measure’s main shortcoming of coming at the issue from the wrong direction.
The bill instead should have targeted a state law that limits the disclosure of details in investigative reports of industrial accidents – this in a state that trumpets its commitment to transparency.
The House bill, supported by 16 Democrats, would require safety trainings and random inspections at dairies, increase penalties for safety violations and strengthen protections for dairy workers. It has the backing of the United Farm Workers union and the Washington State Labor Council.
The dairy industry responds that safety regulations already are in effect, and that the House measure specifically and unfairly targets dairies. Statistics show that the rate of serious accidents at dairies is in line with other occupations in agriculture and construction that involve physical labor.
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The industry also maintains the bill’s provisions wouldn’t have prevented the death of 27-year-old Randy Vasquez at the Riverview Ranch Dairy. Vasquez, a father of three, died after driving a front-end loader into a manure lagoon during his graveyard shift at the dairy. Complicating the case was a Yakima County coroner’s finding of methamphetamine in Vasquez’s system; details as to whether he was impaired were never disclosed.
The state investigated Vasquez’s death and found three serious safety violations at the dairy. The lagoon lacked warning signs and fences on one side, and rescue equipment was not stored nearby. The state fined the dairy $6,800, which on appeal was cut to $2,200. After the accident, the dairy placed guardrails and fences around its manure lagoons.
But we still don’t know whether those steps, if taken beforehand, would have prevented this tragic death. That’s because the data remain sealed.
So, there is no way of knowing whether legislation like this is the right approach. We are left with the predictable scenario of Democrats and their labor allies in favor, and Republicans and their business allies in opposition. It may pass the House, but it has little chance in the Republican-controlled Senate during this short session.
Meanwhile, it does nothing to provide closure for Vasquez’s longtime girlfriend and mother of his three children, and it keeps the dairy industry under a cloud. Without a change to the law, future investigations of worker deaths will involve the same questions.