Audits, other efforts aim to change an injury rate significantly worse than the state’s agricultural sector as a whole. Injuries in Darigold plants are down by two-thirds in a decade, but critics say more needs to be done.

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In February 2015, a worker on a dairy farm of a Darigold farmer-owner in Mabton, Yakima County, drowned when he drove a front loader into a manure lagoon.

That year, farmworkers on Washington dairies had a serious-injury rate 41 percent higher than the state’s agricultural sector as a whole. Two more workers died on dairies in 2016 and 2017, according to data from the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I).

The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) has been pushing the dairy industry to improve safety and other working conditions for years. Its efforts include a long-running legal battle with a Darigold farmer-owner that’s headed to trial in Pasco this fall, and a campaign focused on Darigold, the state’s dairy giant.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to solve any issues with Darigold,” said Indira Trejo, a Tacoma-based UFW organizer focused on the dairy industry.

She applauded stepped-up inspections of dairies by state safety and health officials but said more needs to be done. From 2015 to 2017, inspectors examined 79 dairy worksites around the state, finding one or more serious violations at 43 of them and issuing more than $200,000 in penalties, according to an L&I report. The most commonly cited violation involved accident-prevention programs.

“It’s very hard to change the culture in this industry,” Trejo said.

In 2016, Washington lawmakers considered a bill to mandate more stringent safety standards at dairies including training, better marking around manure ponds and other protections. The dairy industry opposed the legislation and it never advanced.

Stan Ryan, chief executive of Darigold, said the cooperative and its 466 dairy farmers have a “deep and strong” commitment to improving safety.

The farmer-owners operate their own independent businesses but adhere to a common set of standards and guiding principles, Ryan said in an interview.

He said dairy farmers are quick to “adopt best practices when they hear of them, well before anybody says they need to.”

Beginning in 2015, the cooperative, in concert with key customers, began contracting with an outside firm to perform labor-management audits on member farms, leading to improvements such as better written documentation of practices.

“Farmers generally demonstrated good performance on these audits, with no child labor, slave labor, or minimum wage violation issues,” Darigold said in its latest corporate social-responsibility report.

Farms representing more than half of the co-op’s milk supply have been audited.

Darigold itself has similar goals for safety in its factories and supply chain.

“I admit to you, we don’t think we’re world class today, but there’s a big commitment to be world class and there’s a lot of investment around that,” Ryan said.

The company said in the report, covering 2012 to 2015, that it had hired environment, health and safety managers for each of its 11 production plants and has improved its lost-time injury rate by two-thirds, from 7.82 per 200,000 hours worked in 2005 to 2.67 in 2015.

Ryan said the company continues to invest in safety training for workers. “People should go home in as good or better condition than when they came,” he says.