Washington Farm Fined $2M for Virus Rule Violations

Washington Farm Fined $2M for Virus Rule Violations

2020-12-28 16:36:27
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An investigation into the COVID-19 deaths of two workers on a Central Washington farm has reportedly identified dozens of safety and health violations.

As a result, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries has named Gebbers Farm Operations, LP in Brewster, and imposed one of the largest workplace safety and health fines in state history: $ 2,038,200.

“This farm clearly understood the steps to take to protect workers and prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” said L&I director Joel Sacks. "Gebbers made it very clear to the researchers that they did not intend to follow the rules as written regarding temporary housing and transportation of agricultural workers."

L & I's Occupational Safety and Health Department opened an investigation on July 16 after receiving anonymous phone calls from Gebbers Farm employees. The first caller said someone in the camp had died from COVID-19, adding that the workers who shared the same cabin with the deceased had not been tested for the virus and were then split up in different huts with other migrant workers.

The second caller said he feared hundreds of workers in his camp have COVID-19, including himself, and feared he would die. He said the farm owners did nothing to help the sick and simply left them in their huts to die.

During the inspection, investigators confirmed that a 37-year-old temporary worker from Mexico died on July 8, and the death was reportedly not reported to DOSH as required. Companies are required to report any fatal workplace accident within eight hours.

A second employee, a 63-year-old man from Jamaica, collapsed and died on July 31. The cause of death for both workers was reportedly COVID-19.

Early in the investigation, on July 22, L&I issued an order and notice of immediate restraint to the farm, demanding immediate compliance with COVID-19 safety and health rules.

Under the state's emergency rules for temporary housing of farm workers, top and bottom bunk beds can only be used when a farm divides workers into group shelters known as cohorts. Those groups of no more than 15 employees must live, work, eat, shower and cook and travel separately from other employees.

Researchers confirmed that hundreds of workers slept in bunk beds, using both the top and bottom bunk, and were not instructed to stay in cohort groups. Gebbers also brought workers to the fields in groups significantly larger than allowed, increasing the potential exposure to the virus due to the length of each trip.

Investigators returned unannounced daily to ensure eventual safety and health compliance.

In total, the study found 24 blatant willful violations – 12 for unsafe sleeping arrangements and 12 for unsafe transportation of workers. Each of these violations was punished with a fine of $ 84,000. The farm was also named for four other serious violations, including failure to report the fatal accident.

The July investigation was the second in a few weeks involving the farm. L&I started an investigation on May 28 after receiving a complaint from an employee. That investigation resulted in a $ 13,200 fine imposed on Gebbers for failing to provide adequate social distance, with employees using the top and bottom bunk beds while not using a cohort, and no barriers in the kitchen / cooking areas.

During that investigation, L&I explained to Gebbers the details of the housing rules for temporary agricultural workers and the changes needed to make the farm meet the requirements.

Gebbers has 15 days to appeal the violations and the fine of $ 2,038,200. Money paid as a result of a quote goes to the employee compensation supplemental retirement fund and helps employees and families of those who died on the job.

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