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Immigrant labor – the new/permanent normal

Dan M. Hair Published on 06 November 2015

Throughout economic history, immigrant laborers have filled gaps in the workforce in many industries and in many countries.

Often the jobs they fill are difficult, mostly manual in nature, lower-paying and sometimes dangerous. Language barriers and cultural differences are frequently sources of miscommunication and result in inadequate training for these workers.

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In some cases, workers from a rural, non-machine culture may be asked to operate machinery without a sound understanding of how to do so safely and without that innate understanding of powered equipment that others take for granted. The literature suggests that immigrant laborers may also be reticent in raising safety issues due to concerns over their legal status.

The dairy industry is a poster child for the great challenges and opportunities that come with increasing dependence on immigrant labor. Schenker and Gunderson have said: “Agriculture has always been a first occupation for immigrants, and that continues to be the case. …This is dramatically reflected in the dairy industry.

Over the past decade, immigrant workers have increased to 70 percent of the milk production workforce. Increases in this largely Latino population are expected to account for all growth in the industry in coming decades.”

The dairy industry, with its many different occupations from the cow to the consumer, presents many opportunities. Dairy farmers are generally good stewards of the land, forward-thinking and tech-savvy managers. I can remember attending the Tulare, California, farm equipment show in my FFA days 40-plus years ago and walking through a dairy pavilion even then full of computers and software vendors.

As time has passed, the dairyman has had to become a good human resource manager as well. Reynolds, Lundqvist and Colosio have said: “There is recognition in the industry that good dairy farm practice ensures that milk is produced by healthy animals in a manner that is sustainable and responsible from the animal welfare, social, economic and environmental perspectives.

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But the sustainability of a healthy productive workforce is seldom specifically included. Managers on expanding dairies worldwide often have little training or experience in managing people. The transition to human resource management, especially with a largely immigrant workforce, is challenging and stressful.”

Like all farm workers, those working on dairies face a wide range of safety and health hazards. They work every day with powered farm equipment, come in close contact with large and unpredictable animals, face long working hours and can be exposed to health hazards from zoonoses, confined spaces and chemicals. Overlay this with language and cultural barriers, and the challenge is even greater.

Good news: Developing and managing a sound, basic safety program is not rocket science

To begin with, there are several good sources of multilingual safety training materials which can make it easier for a dairy to train its workers in basic loss prevention. They include state labor commissions, insurance carriers and online sources. One of the best is the National Ag Safety Database.

In the intermountain area, we also have the NIOSH High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (HICAHS) at Colorado State University. The center has given a special emphasis to the dairy industry in its research and outreach efforts, and is a great resource.

Communication with the worker in their own language is absolutely essential. Someone on the dairy who is a good communicator must have bilingual skills, or that resource needs to be brought in. As in all businesses everywhere, frequent and effective two-way communication between workers and managers, where trust exists, makes all the difference. Schenker and Gunderson have said: “Establishing trust is a critical requirement that requires listening to workers and working with them to address their needs.”

With that established, the basic elements of an effective safety program can be introduced. Let me mention the most critical ones.

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1. The safety effort must be managed as diligently as milk production.

This involves management setting safety expectations and standards. Periodic review of results and holding others accountable is a key component. This can be done by the dairy owner or another manager who has appropriate authority.

2. Workers must receive basic safety and health training.

The training should be given at time of hire and continued on at least a quarterly basis. It should cover the most common hazards on the dairy. Often the workers compensation insurance carrier will offer resources to help with this. As part of the training, make sure you get feedback from the workers on safety at the dairy.

3. All accidents and near-misses should be promptly investigated.

A written report of the accident should be completed after interviewing the injured worker and any witnesses. The goal should be determining behaviors and conditions that led to the incident. Simply attaching blame rarely prevents reoccurrence. Even when the worker seems to have departed from their training, you must get to the “why” of their actions.

4. Survey the dairy for hazards on a regular basis.

Experienced dairy farmers know where and how a worker can get hurt on the dairy. Start with that in compiling a list of things to check on at least quarterly. This can be assigned to a supervisor or other worker, but it should be recorded. Free templates are available from many of the sources mentioned earlier. If problems are identified, they should be corrected promptly. This will encourage workers to come forward with hazards they observe in their everyday work.

Developing an effective safety program in a multicultural setting is a challenge – but doable. The demographic trends are clear and unchanging. The ultimate sustainability of the dairy may depend on it.  PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

Dan M. Hair is the Chief Risk Officer at the Workers Compensation Fund. He can be reached by email. 

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