Death on a Small Farm

Hundreds of people died while working on small farms over a five-year period. Why is Congress blocking investigations into these fatalities?


Eli Wolfe, The Atlantic

Nov 28, 2018


Is the dim early light washed over the Appalachian countryside, Jason Kingsley began his climb up the side of an 80-foot silo. Kingsley was not a morning person. But he was also broke and unemployed. So when a dairy farmer named Ronald Wood called to ask him to help rescue a piece of machinery that had accidentally been buried under tons of hay and legumes, Kingsley said yes.


Not long before, Kingsley, 26, had been making good money in the Pennsylvania natural-gas fields that dot the Marcellus Shale. But the work dried up, and he was forced to move back to his father’s house in the little town of Mansfield, in the far north-central part of the state.


In the silo, Kingsley’s boots crunched on the mixture of wet hay and legumes used to feed Wood’s dairy cows. Wielding pitchforks, he and another worker, Eric Stone, tossed clumps of fodder to the bottom of a chute, where other workers removed the clumps and carted them away.


Soon they were engulfed in stifling heat rising from the decaying plant matter, and dust pricked their lungs. Neither man was equipped with a respirator. There was no emergency plan or alternative escape route should something go wrong. And something had. Stone was the first to realize he was having trouble breathing. When he peered down the chute they had climbed to the top of the huge cylinder of fodder, he couldn’t see any daylight. The chute that had carried fresh air to the men was plugged tight.


Kingsley and Stone took out their cellphones to call the men below. They weren’t panicking yet, but they needed to get out. Now.


The workers below tried to clear the chute, but the compressed mass wouldn’t come loose. As Stone sat in the damp fodder, his heart filled with dread. The burning pressure in his chest was getting worse. “It’s just an awful feeling, knowing that you’re losing all the air that you have and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Stone later recalled in an interview.


He decided to climb down the chute and try kicking his way through the fodder. But as soon as he stood up, he fell back down, dizzy from lack of oxygen.


Kingsley then gave it a try, but quickly became helpless and disoriented. “I can’t get out,” Stone recalled him saying. Kingsley began counting and mumbling, then begged for help. Deep in the dark, airless chute, Stone heard him say he didn’t think he was going to make it. Then he fell silent.


Driving by a short time later, Kingsley’s mother, Denise, passed a convoy of fire trucks leaving the farm. What, she wondered, could be going on at Ronald Wood’s place?



Jason Kingsley’s death in June 2015 was not the first at a farm owned by Ronald Wood. Two other employees had perished in previous accidents.


Yet the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t investigate Kingsley’s death, as it normally would after a workplace fatality. It was not allowed to do anything because of a fateful decision by Congress more than 40 years ago that has given small farms unique immunity from safety oversight.


Over the past four decades, many hundreds of employees have been killed or seriously injured without follow-up investigations by osha because small farms are exempt from agency scrutiny.


What’s more, because the exemption applies to all osha activities, agency inspectors are also barred from checking for hazards before injuries or deaths occur, and from responding to employee complaints about unsafe conditions. And while there is some evidence that small farms, on average, are more dangerous than other workplaces, osha isn’t allowed to provide the compliance advice to small farms it can give to other employers.


“You’ve got protections in almost every other kind of workplace out there,” said Denise Kingsley, Jason’s mother, adding that when it comes to farms, “I feel like there needs to be something in place.”


In 1976, Congress attached a rider to the osha appropriation that has carried over into budget bills ever since. A short clause prohibits the use of federal funds for regulatory activities on a farm with 10 or fewer nonfamily workers. This is not a small category. About 93 percent of U.S. farms with outside employees meet that criteria, according to the latest U.S. census of agriculture, employing more than 1.2 million workers.


The exemption reflects an age-old ideal of the small farm as a hallowed place deserving of special deference. Yet by keeping the exemption, Congress is saying it “doesn’t really care whether workers get killed on small farms or not,” said Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor for osha during the Obama administration. “There’s no other way to interpret it.”


There is no official count of farm deaths that have been exempted from investigation, since osha doesn’t keep track. But data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that, in a recent six-year period—2011 through 2016—333 employees were killed in accidents on farms with 10 or fewer employees. osha wouldn’t have followed up on any of these, though it’s possible a small number were investigated by inspectors from the few states that, on their own, monitor safety on small farms...