Benjamin Manuel Gonzales and other workers in the milking barn at the Cow Palace in the Yakima Valley.
Kris Holland/Yakima Herald-Republic

The dark side of dairies

A broken system leaves immigrant workers invisible -- and in danger.

  • Benjamin Manuel Gonzales and other workers in the milking barn at the Cow Palace in the Yakima Valley.

    Kris Holland/Yakima Herald-Republic
  • A worker at Veiga Dairy in Sunnyside, Washington, hoses down the concrete pad after milking.

    Andy Sawyer/Yakima Herald-Republic
  • Arturo Sepulveda (left), an organizer for United Farm Workers of America, talks with former workers from Ruby Ridge Dairy. Sepulveda and his co-workers successfully unionized the Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Oregon, one of only two unionized dairies in the West.

    Rajah Bose
  • Miguel Espiritu, Jose “Gordo” Miranda and Armando Herrera (pictured from left), were among the workers who say they left or were fired from Ruby Ridge Dairy in Pasco, Washington, after they tried to organize a union.

    Rajah Bose


At first, there was neither pain nor fear, only an unfamiliar warmth flooding his chest. Then he remembered the cow and her kicking back leg. Then he realized how hard it was to see.

He woke up lying on the rubber mat on the dusty floor of the dairy where he works. It was 4:30 in the morning, and he had been at work since 5 the night before. The sweet and putrid smell of cow manure laced the air. As he waited half an hour for his boss to come take him to the hospital, he pressed a towel to his face, stared at the blood pooled on his white T-shirt. His head felt as though it might burst. He told himself that it was only a cut, but he had never felt pain like this before.

Later, he learned that his face was broken in three places. The doctors put a metal plate beneath his left eye. Now, four years later, he explains in Spanish through a translator that the plate is slipping. His eye burns, especially in the heat. He can't see well without glasses.

He is afraid to tell his story without the shield of a different name, so let's call him Gustavo. Like many of the immigrants who work in the West's dairies, he lives here illegally. He thinks about how easy it would be for his bosses to fire him and replace him with one of the other immigrants who come here daily looking for work. He has three young children and a wife to support, as well as his parents and siblings back in Peru.

"It's a job with lots of risks. If I had papers, man, there's no way I'd be working in a dairy. But in this town, this is the best job I can get," he says, sagging into his kitchen chair, exhausted after his 12-hour shift. When he smiles, a quick, almost apologetic smile, his left eye looks slightly lopsided. A jagged purple scar mars the base of his cheek. "Every worker I know says they've been kicked or stepped on by a cow. It's common. But one day (the cows) might break your bones, or maybe even kill you."

Milk may have a wholesome commercial image, but the dairies that produce most of the nation's supply aren't always healthy places to work. Dairy workers are injured at a much higher rate than other workers in the U.S.: Between 2004 and 2007, nearly seven of every 100 dairy workers were hurt annually on average, compared to 4.5 out of 100 for all private industries. Beyond using tractors and heavy farming equipment, dairy workers interact with large, unpredictable farm animals — work that ranks among the most hazardous of all occupations, according to a 2007 article in Epidemiology. Plus, they breathe air laced with bacteria and manure dust, putting them at risk for long-term respiratory disease.

Data culled by High Country News show that at least 18 people died in Western dairies between 2003 and 2009 (see sidebar for a state-by-state list, with links to original accident reports and investigations). They were killed in tractor accidents, suffocated by falling hay bales, crushed by charging cows and bulls and asphyxiated by gases from manure lagoons and corn silage. Others survived but lost limbs or received concussions and spent days in the hospital. However, it's difficult to form an accurate picture of the dangers lurking in dairies because the data are incomplete. Due in part to lobbying by the powerful agricultural industry, the reporting requirements for employers are full of holes, and state and federal laws prevent safety agencies from investigating injuries and deaths in certain cases. Meanwhile, dairy workers themselves are often too afraid to speak up.

The majority of the West's nearly 50,000 dairy workers are immigrants, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture sociologist William Kandel. Many of them are undocumented, monolingual Spanish speakers like Gustavo. Such workers are unlikely to report injuries or file claims with the state for money to recover medical bills and missed pay for fear of getting fired or deported. Though Gustavo himself filed a claim without incident, he knows five workers who went to the hospital with injuries, filed claims and were fired. One former coworker's ankle was stomped on by a cow, and he still can't walk despite several surgeries. Gustavo's cousin was attacked by a bull, and despite the screws now holding his shoulder together, he can no longer milk cows or pick crops and is unemployed.

To make matters worse, federal labor laws that protect workers in other industries and give them a voice don't cover dairy workers; state oversight and inspections can be as weak as skim milk. In the Yakima Valley, where Gustavo works, there are virtually no labor advocacy organizations. And with the dairy industry facing some of its hardest economic times in recent history, its workers may be more vulnerable than ever before. 

"If you're undocumented, you won't complain. You won't ask for extra water or a shade break or to not do a task you think is dangerous. These things lead to workplace injuries," says Marc Schenker, director of the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety in Davis, Calif., which is funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. "Their injuries aren't inevitable; they're the failure of our system to do the right thing. It's not only an injustice but a tragedy."

Anonymous says:
Aug 25, 2009 04:23 PM
Livestock concentration camps, open pit livestock mines, get the picture. These industrial dairy operations are not agri-culture, they are milk factories wherein not only the cow but workers are throwaways.
There is far more dark than light to these type of operations and it is all driven by greed.
Anonymous says:
Aug 26, 2009 04:33 PM
If there was a way for milk producers to access the profit that is made by retailers (such as Wal-mart) it would be very easy to improve on farm safety.
Calling large farms greedy is ridiculous, considering the financial challenges modern farms confront to just to stay in business.
Anonymous says:
Aug 26, 2009 06:09 PM
Businesses that can't produce a product and make a fair living without cruelty to animals and workers are failed businesses and should be eliminated.
Anonymous says:
Aug 27, 2009 07:17 AM
Well, by that standard there should be no car companies selling cars. How many people and animals are killed every day by cars? 140 per day are killed based on national average of 51,100 killed per year. That's ten times more killed per day vs 18 killed over 5 years on dairies.
Anonymous says:
Aug 27, 2009 08:21 AM
The size of a Dairy operation has nothing to do with how well the employees treated or how humanely the animals are treated.
Smaller dose not equal better.
Blanket statements about large operations is irresponsible.
Anonymous says:
Aug 27, 2009 02:41 PM
Please go to STOPTHEMEGADAIRY (dot) ORG and make a donation to help keep AJ Bos and his 13,700 animal unit Traditions Factory Farm Dairy from polluting our air and water in Jo Daviess County Illinois. Our group called HOMES has won every court case so far and we are nearing the final trial. With your donations we can win this case and help to discourage other factory farms from gaining a foothold in our community or any others. This is an important case that we can win!
Here is what the Judge has said so far....
"Groundwater contamination from Defendant Bos' proposed livestock management facility would constitute a substantial future harm and the proposed facility presents a high probability of creating a public and private nuisance by creating an environment injurious to the health and welfare of surrounding neighbors and the public at large. "As such, Plaintiffs have no adequate remedy at law and irreparable harm is likely to result if a preliminary injunction is not granted."
Anonymous says:
Sep 07, 2009 11:31 AM
First off --I'm mostly vegan and haven't had a glass of milk in over 30 years. Yes--I agree the workers in these big agri-businesses are not treated well but they are treated better than the cows.
 The one thing that does upset me is the fact that the article points to that most of these workers are undocumented. That means that they are in this country illegally and therefore have NO rights here because they are criminals.
 These workers need to be rounded up and sent back to their country of origin and the dairy owners need to be prosecuted for hiring illegal immigrants.
 If American workers had these jobs they would not be afraid to speak out and perhaps the situation would get better.
 Sorry --but I find it hard to pity or have mercy for these illegal immigrants who take American jobs away from Americans and cost us ,as taxpayers, a lot more money than they are worth.
 I also have a hard time feeling sorry for dairy factories for what they do to the cows
Anonymous says:
Sep 22, 2009 11:41 AM
check out this NYT article (with a good video segment on Idaho dairies) that addresses how industrial dairies can pollute groundwater.
Anonymous says:
Sep 24, 2009 11:31 AM
Anonymous says:
Mar 29, 2010 02:43 PM
I've worked on a dairy for the past five years. It was the best work experience that I've ever had. Sure, it has risks, but so does every other job involving large animals. Dairy farmers are professionals at what they do, and it's not right to be criticizing them when they are struggling just to make ends meet.
william pierce
william pierce says:
Jul 12, 2011 07:49 AM
I have worked and gotten seriously hurt on a dairy farm!! I am a US citizen born and raised here. and yet when I got hurt I lost my job and home!! dairy's are exempt in many states from having to keep you on after an injury whether u are illegal or not!! they claim it is so the farm can keep running when in actuality it is the same thing they do with a cow that stops producing enuff,, it gets shot!!!
jan whitefoot
jan whitefoot says:
Oct 02, 2011 02:29 PM
These factory farms are subsidzed by you, the taxpayer. Without millions of dollars from us, they would not be sustainable. Look up dairy subsidies on the internet. They often get tax breaks incentives, not available to other small sustainable farmmers. They have made it legal to bury their dead cows on site here in Yakima County, Washington State, the county where the "Mad Cow case" was found. They are destroying out drinking water and fouling our air all so they can make a buck. Tell your congressman to stop funding CAFOs through the farm bill. They are worse than welfare recipients they often critize and are REPUBLICANS in Yakima County. We hired a airplane to fly over the Yakima Valley to photograph the polluting CAFOs (dairy). It was like being in Hell and still alive. The air was so putrid it made us vomit. The open cesspools, they call lagoons looked like a war zone. We soon will have no clean water left.