OSHA responds to charges of overregulation on small farms

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 22, 2014 - The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will work to clarify its regulations regarding grain storage on small farms, an agency official told members of the media today.

OSHA's pledge follows accusations by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., that the agency had ignored 35-year-old provisions in fining a small Nebraska farm for improper grain storage.

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At issue is language included in appropriations bills since 1976 that exempts farming operations with 10 or fewer employees from regulations enforced with OSHA funds. 

Johanns says many of these small farms have grain storage bins, and use them as part of standard post-harvest activities exempted by the rider.

OSHA says most small farms, even those with grain storage facilities, should be exempt from regulations because of the appropriations language. But the agency says it is also working to make the rules clearer for government inspectors and producers alike.

Safety has motivated OSHA's recent interest in on-farm grain storage facilities, Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary for OSHA, said on today's conference call. After a spate of storage accidents in 2010 lead to 57 bin “engulfments” and 31 deaths, OSHA in 2011 released a memorandum clarifying its position on the facilities and began what Barab called a “very aggressive campaign” to prevent similar incidents.

The agency sent out letters to every grain storage operator, provided more compliance and technical assistance, and also increased enforcement, Barab explained. As a result, 2012 saw fewer accidents: only 19 engulfments and eight deaths.

“Let me just say, in general, it is not our policy, nor has it been our practice, to inspect grain facilities that are an intrinsic part of the farming practice,” Barab said. He said OSHA has yet to find an instance of an inspector going “to the wrong places” to enforce grain storage regulations.

Language passed in the $1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill, however, has pushed OSHA to revisit the issue. The provision “encourages” the agency to work with USDA “before moving forward with any attempts to redefine and regulate post-harvest activities.”

“The inclusion of this language makes it very clear that OSHA does not have the authority to harass family farmers,” Johanns said in response to the appropriations provision. 

Barab said OSHA “intends to meet with USDA very quickly (and) revise the (2011) memorandum very quickly.”

This piece was updated at 7:00PM.

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