OSHA backs off on farm investigations

Published on: Feb 11, 2014

The Department of Labor has withdrawn a controversial enforcement memo from its Website previously sent to its Occupational Safety and Health inspectors providing guidance on on-farm inspections that allowed inspectors on farms with fewer than 10 employees.

Brian Kennedy, assistant secretary, Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs at DOL, said in a letter to Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.) and other senators who questioned the agency’s actions that the department “intends to fully comply with the small farms exemption.” In 2011, OSHA issued a memo to Regional Administrators and State Plan Designees to ensure that OSHA inspectors understood the limitations on OSHA’s authority to conduct enforcement activities at small farming operations during OSHA’s grain safety campaign.

“The June 28, 2011 memorandum was intended to provide clarification and not to change longstanding OSHA policy,” Kennedy wrote.

He added that DOL will issue new guidance after consulting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This mirrors similar comments made by Jordan Barab, deputy assistance secretary for OSHA, to media in a call Jan. 23.

Kennedy said OSHA held a preliminary call with the USDA on Friday, Jan. 31. And to avoid any confusion in the meantime, OSHA has removed the memo from its Website.

The letter also outlined that OSHA has instructed its field offices, in cases of uncertainty, to request clarification from the National Office when determining if farming operations are exempt.

“This additional level of review is intended to ensure compliance with the appropriations language,” the letter added.

In a hearing Feb. 4 before the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, the American Farm Bureau Federation testified that the memo should be withdrawn because it provides authority for enforcement activities on small farms that are exempt under law.

“Farm Bureau understands OSHA’s concerns with grain bin safety,” said Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation, testifying to the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections on behalf of AFBF. Further, noted VanderWal, “Farm Bureau remains committed to grain bin and farm safety generally. Had OSHA reached out to Farm Bureau and others in agriculture we would have been eager to work with them to develop additional safety training programs if necessary to prevent injury.”