January 10, 2014
Farmers who store grain could face inspections and scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) despite a decades-long exemption, unless the U.S. Senate is able to work its will and make OSHA back off its regulatory change.
Sen. Mike Johanns, a former U.S. agriculture secretary, authored a letter with 42 other senators to Labor Secretary Tom Perez on Dec. 20 demanding the agency stop inspecting family farms. Since 1976, Congress has exempted farmers from OSHA regulations if the farms employ fewer than 10 people and do not provide housing for temporary workers. The senators note OSHA's memo on grain bins "is creating an artificial distinction in an apparent effort to circumvent the congressional prohibition on regulating farms."
OSHA's regulatory stance changed with a memo in 2011 to field inspectors stating the agency could perform inspections at grain storage facilities. The memo stated that virtually every post-harvest activity could be inspected because much of the work is the same as a commercial grain elevator. Thus, anyone engaged in work such as "crop cleaning, sun drying, shelling, fumigating, curing, sorting, grading, packing and cooling" could thus be inspected.
Updated on-farm storage data comes out next week, but U.S. farms have more than 13 billion bushels of storage capacity. Based on quarterly U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) numbers, farms in December stored more than 6 billion bushels of corn alone and likely also have at least 1 billion bushels of soybeans and 400 million bushels of wheat in storage. Those figures are based on average USDA reports over the past two years.
OSHA argues the agency's push to begin inspecting grain bins came after increased cases of grain entrapments and deaths. "OSHA launched an initiative to help prevent further fatalities by increasing outreach and enforcement. OSHA sent letters to over 13,000 grain elevator companies informing them that these deaths must be prevented by following the commonsense standards. OSHA also increased its enforcement of these standards across the country."
OSHA added the increased inspections are having the desired effect. "These efforts were successful, and they saved lives. By 2012, the number of fatalities had dropped 74 percent from 31 deaths in 2010 to eight in 2012. The rate of overall entrapments also went down drastically from a high of 57 in 2010 to 19 in 2012."
Reprinted in part from Northern Ag Network