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An investigation into the COVID-19 deaths of two workers at a farm in Washington has found dozens of safety and health violations and resulted in a $2 million fine, which the Washington Department of Labor & Industries classified as one of the largest workplace safety fines in state history.
Investigators allege that the operators at Gebbers Farm Operations LP in Brewster, Washington “made it very apparent to investigators they had no intention of following the rules as written regarding temporary agricultural worker housing and transportation,” L&I director Joel Sacks said in a statement released Monday.
L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health opened an investigation July 16 after receiving anonymous calls from workers at Gebbers Farm. The first caller said someone at the camp had died from COVID-19, adding that the workers who shared the same cabin with the deceased were not tested for the virus and were then split up into different cabins with other migrant workers, according to the statement.
The second caller said he feared that hundreds of workers at his camp have COVID-19, including himself, and he worried he would die. He said the farm owners did nothing to help the sick and just left them in their cabins to die, according to the statement.
During the inspection, investigators confirmed a 37-year-old temporary worker from Mexico died July 8; the death had not been reported to DOSH as required, as businesses must report any workplace-related fatality within eight hours. A second worker, a 63-year-old man from Jamaica, collapsed and died July 31. The cause of death for both workers was COVID-19.
Under state emergency rules for temporary agricultural worker housing, top and bottom bunks can only be used if a farm separates workers into group shelters known as cohorts. Those groups of no more than 15 workers must live, work, eat, use shower and cooking facilities, and travel separately from other workers.
Investigators confirmed hundreds of workers were sleeping in bunk beds, using both the top and bottom bunks, and were not instructed to remain in cohort groups. Gebbers was also busing workers to the fields in groups significantly larger than allowed, increasing potential exposure to the virus due to the length of each trip, according to the department’s statement.
In total, the investigation found 24 egregious willful violations — 12 for unsafe sleeping arrangements and 12 for unsafe worker transportation. The farm was also cited for four other serious violations including not reporting the fatality.
Gebbers has 15 days to appeal the violations and the penalty. The company could not be reached for comment.
More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited 37 entities for violations related to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in proposed penalties totaling $484,069, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Friday.