Washington state investigators have handed out a growing number of hefty fines to businesses violating COVID-19 safety rules designed to protect employees and customers. But none of them even come close to the $2,038,200 citation against Gebbers Farm Operations, LP, one of the biggest apple and cherry producers in the Pacific Northwest.
Following the coronavirus-related deaths of two workers at the Central Washington farm in July, state investigators reportedly found dozens of safety and health violations.
The more than $2 million fine issued by the Washington state Department of Labor & Industries (L&) is among the largest workplace safety and health fines in state history.
“This farm clearly understood the steps they were required to take to keep workers safe and prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” L&I Director Joel Sacks said in a news release. “Gebbers 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’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health opened the investigation in July after anonymous callers from Gebbers Farms reported that a fellow worker had died from COVID-19 and hundreds more might be infected.
Investigators confirmed that a 37-year-old temporary worker from Mexico had died on July 8, and a second worker, a 63-year-old man from Jamaica, died July 31. The causes of death for both workers were reportedly COVID-19. A third death was also reported around the same time, but L&I did not mention that case as part of its latest investigation.
Additionally, investigators found that Gebbers violated COVID-19 safety and health rules related to housing workers in tight quarters and busing workers to the fields in groups much larger than allowed. The L&I inspectors cited Gebbers with 24 egregious willful violations — 12 for unsafe sleeping arrangements and 12 for unsafe worker transportation. Each of the violations carried a fine of $84,000.
L&I also cited the farm for four other serious violations including failing to report the first worker death.
L&I had previously opened an investigation at Gebbers on May 28 after receiving a separate worker complaint about COVID-19 violations. The farm was fined $13,200 for failing to ensure adequate social distancing in sleeping quarters and failing to use barriers in kitchen and cooking areas.
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