The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has pledged to clarify its policies relating to regulating activities on small farms. Before Christmas – Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns led a group of Senators in writing a letter to direct OSHA to issue updated guidance correcting their misinterpretation of current law. Johanns said the agency had ignored 35-year old provisions in fining a small farm in his state for improper grain storage. Language included in appropriations bills since 1976 exempts farming operations with 10 or fewer employees from regulations enforced with OSHA funds. The agency’s recent interest in on-farm grain storage facilities – according to OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab – is motivated by safety. OSHA released a memorandum to clarify its position on the facilities in 2011 – after several storage accidents in 2010 that led to 57 bin engulfments and 31 deaths. Barab says OSHA also started a very aggressive campaign to prevent similar incidents. As a result of that campaign – which included increased enforcement – Barab says there were only 19 engulfments and eight deaths in 2012. The omnibus appropriations bill recently approved by Congress has pushed OSHA to revisit the issue. A provision encourages the agency to work with USDA before moving forward with any attempts to redefine and regulate post-harvest activities. According to Barab – OSHA intends to meet with USDA and revise the 2011 memorandum very quickly.
Johanns is pleased OSHA has indicated a willingness to revisit its policy of regulatory overreach on small farms. According to Johanns – stepping back in line with the law means honoring Congressional intent to protect family farms – including post-harvest activities. He says it isn’t a matter of changing the law – but restating the same law that’s been on the books for decades and honoring the limitations set by Congress. Johanns is hopeful the agency is prepared to follow through – but says actions speak louder than words – so only time will tell if OSHA is committed to following the law.