The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says farmers can afford to implement a proposed new heat standard for workers, because the annual cost for most ag operations would be less than 1% of their revenue.

The head of the National Council of Agricultural Employers says most of his members are already doing what is proposed in the rule that was released Tuesday – providing water, shade and rest breaks when temperatures get too high.

“This looks similar to what we have been anticipating,” NCAE President Michael Marsh said, noting that his group has held two webinars on the topic of heat and plans to have another when the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.

“Additionally, farmers and ranchers have heat protocols included in their existing injury and illness prevention programs,” Marsh said. “NCAE regularly reminds members in our publications to ensure their protocols are in place and up-to-date as temperatures warm.”

The proposal, which allows a 120-day comment period, would require employers to develop heat illness and injury prevention plans and take certain actions to protect workers at two heat triggers — 80 degrees and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Clean and cool water, rest breaks and acclimatization plans are among the requirements.

OSHA’s economic analysis accompanying the proposal includes estimated costs based on farm business classes of the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). Estimated costs per affected operation include oilseed and grain farming (costs of $1,172, or 0.11% of annual revenue); vegetable and melon farming ($5,242, 0.37% of revenue); fruit and tree nut farming ($2,819, 0.32% of revenue); cattle ranching and farming ($1,724, 0.19% of revenue); and “other crop farming” ($1,714, 0.51% of revenue).

Although agriculture “would be expected to have relatively large impacts under the proposed standard, due to the prevalence of outdoor work, … the costs of their compliance with the proposed standard would not generally be expected to exceed 1% of revenues when all cost offsets (e.g., current practices to address heat hazards, productivity gains outside of rest breaks) are considered, based on available empirical evidence,” OSHA said.

The exceptions are sheep and goat farming (NAICS 1124) and “other animal production” (NAICS 1129) where estimated costs exceeded 1% of revenues. Only five of 298 industries examined had estimated costs above that threshold.

OSHA said it believes the 1% threshold was exceeded “as a result of data limitations, rather than a real finding” that the proposed rule is not economically feasible to implement.

In addition, NAICS 1124 and NAICS 1129 “are both heavily weighted to very small family-owned farms,” OSHA’s analysis said, and a 32-year-old appropriations rider prohibits OSHA from conducting enforcement activities on small farms.

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“Based on the size and organization of these farms, and because a longstanding appropriations rider generally prevents OSHA from enforcing its standards against most small farm operations with 10 or fewer employees, it is unlikely OSHA would enforce the proposed standard in those industries,” the analysis said.

Climate change has led to a series of record hot years, and 2024 appears to be no exception. Analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sees “a 55% chance that 2024 will rank as the warmest year on record and a 99% chance that it will rank in the top five.”

President Joe Biden made an appearance Tuesday at an emergency operations center in Washington to discuss the proposal and other actions taken by his administration. He quoted OSHA’s estimate that 479 workers died from exposure to environmental heat from 2011-2022, more than those who died from all other weather-related disasters during the same period.

"Across the country, workers suffer heat stroke or even die, just doing their job," Biden said. 

OSHA said its estimates are likely to be much lower than reality. A Los Angeles Times investigation in 2021 found that 3,900 people died in California from heat exposure from 2010 to 2019 — six times the state’s official estimate.

The United Farm Workers and the UFW Foundation said OSHA had followed the lead of existing heat safety standards in California, Oregon and Washington, “all of which were implemented following the deaths of farm workers killed on the job by extreme heat.”

“The federal government put itself on the right side of history by seeking, for the first time, to establish the precedent that every worker in America has the right to shade, water, and rest while working in temperatures that could kill them,” UFW President Teresa Romero said.

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