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High Country News wins social justice award for ‘The Dark Side of Dairies’

High Country News Rebecca Clarren

In this photo by by Kris Holland of the Yakima Herald-Republic, which ran with Rebecca Clarren's story on "The Dark Side of Dairies," workers milk cows at the Cow Palace in the Yakima Valley.

Rebecca Clarren High Country News
Rebecca Clarren

Rebecca Clarren won an award from the Sidney Hillman Foundation for exemplary reporting on social justice issues for a piece in High Country News magazine about  working conditions for immigrant dairy workers.  

She details the long work hours of one worker and the injuries he sustained when a cow kicked him in the face, breaking it in three places. She also describes how the industry doesn’t have any federal standards to protect workers. She writes:  

“Other dangerous industries, such as meatpacking, logging and construction, have specific safety standards mandated by state or federal labor agencies. While dairies fall under the general agricultural safety regulations for tractors and heavy machinery, there are no specific standards for how workers should be protected while milking or moving cows. Dairy workers in Washington, Nevada, Oregon and California are entitled to lunch and rest breaks, but legal aid organizations in these states say the laws are rarely enforced. The state of Washington has not fined any dairies for failing to provide rest breaks, at least not in recent history.”  

Today’s Tip: Just because no one tracks the statistics doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.  

As Rebecca notes in the article, dairy farms have to be a certain size to fall onto the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s radar and laws don’t make union organization easy. She was able to gather incident reports from sheriff’s offices, which helped create the accompanying graphic listing the 18 fatalities and numerous injuries among Western dairy workers.  

The Los Angeles Times found much the same thing when it investigated fatalities caused by sudden acceleration in Toyotas; the public records were just the starting point. Hearst Newspapers ran into a similar problem when it tried to investigate deaths caused by hospital errors.  

Rebecca, a 2009 Alicia Patterson Fellow, had to get to know the workers to document the problems.  When you visit businesses, don’t pretend the workers are invisible. Take extra business cards, and when you’re not under the watchful eye of the flack —  in the restroom or the parking lot —  introduce yourself to workers. You never know what information you can get when they’re off the clock.  

For more tips on how to develop and interview sources, check out this recorded, hourlong Webinar on the topic with former Washington Post investigative reporter Alec Klein.

In Featured, Investigation, Small | Private | Non-profit, Story ideas.

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