WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2014--The U.S. Department of Labor will update its guidance on grain bin safety enforcement, Brian Kennedy, the DOL’s assistant secretary of the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, said in a letter to Senator Mike Johanns, R-Neb.
Johanns and 42 other senators had complained to DOL that the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was enforcing regulations on small farms, despite a 1976 law that exempted small farms from such regulation. Johanns referred to a 2011 OSHA memo, which he said “asserted that on-farm grain storage and handling was not part of farm operations.” According to his letter, OSHA began interpreting the small farm exemption so narrowly that a farm’s “grain bin operation” could be viewed as distinct from the rest of the farming operation.
Brian Kennedy, in his letter to Johanns, noted that DOL prohibits OSHA activity on farms that employ 10 or fewer employees and that do not maintain a temporary labor camp. Still, he said, “In 2010 there was a dramatic increase in the number of workers entrapped and suffocated in grain storage structures while performing grain handling operations.” In response, the department ramped up its inspection program – and cut down on such accidents.
The 2011 memo referred to by Johanns was meant to “provide clarification and not to change OSHA policy.’’ That memo has been withdrawn “to avoid any confusion” and DOL will issue new guidance after consulting with USDA and farm organizations, he said.
“This additional level of review is intended to ensure compliance with the appropriations language,” Kennedy said.
The Labor Department “takes seriously the congressional concerns raised in your letter and intends to fully comply with the small farms exemption,” Kennedy wrote to Johanns. He added that OSHA has instructed its field offices to request clarification from the National Office in cases of uncertainty when determining if farming operations are exempt.
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