A group of federal legislators earlier this week sent a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez asking Perez to instruct OSHA to stop enforcing safety regulations at small farms – even as OSHA insists that it has complied with a longstanding congressional spending clause that forbids the agency from doing so.
The letter, which is signed by 83 Republicans and Democrats from the House of Representatives, calls on Perez “to issue an updated memo clarifying OSHA has no authority to regulate any aspect of an agricultural operation with 10 or fewer employees.”
“Farmers and landowners have a strong vested and personal interest in keeping their operations safe and viable, and they are already subject to countless regulations to ensure operational integrity,” the House members wrote. “If the administration believes OSHA should be given authority to regulate small farming operations, evidence would need to be presented to Congress and passed through the normal legislative process.”
The House members also ask Perez to instruct OSHA to retroactively terminate and dismiss all enforcement actions that the agency has taken against small farms since issuing a 2011 memo in which OSHA declared that it has the authority to regulate post-harvest activities such as grain storage and handling regardless of the farm size.
“The memo has since been broadly interpreted to provide OSHA inspectors authority to regulate on-farm grain storage and other activities not directly related to growing and harvest,” the legislators assert in the letter to Perez.
While Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns and other federal lawmakers are convinced that OSHA is violating the terms of the congressional spending clause that forbids the agency from regulating small farms, OSHA Deputy Administrator Jordan Barab told reporters that OSHA has been consistent in its adherence to the congressional rider, which dates back to 1976.
“It has never been our intent, nor our practice, to target small farms for inspection, in violation of the congressional rider,” Barab said during a recent conference call. “In fact, it has been our intent and our practice to strictly comply with the rider.”
The FY 2014 federal spending bill reiterates that OSHA cannot enforce safety regulations at farming operations that have fewer than 10 employees, and includes language that calls for OSHA to work with the Department of Agriculture “before moving forward with any attempts to redefine and regulate post-harvest activities,” including grain storage.
OSHA issued the June 2011 memo in response to an uptick in grain-related fatalities. The intent behind the 2011 memo, Barab explained, was to clarify which facilities were exempt from inspection and which ones weren’t, “because we wanted to make sure that [compliance officers] didn’t go to the wrong places.”
“We feel that our policy, at least our practice, has been fairly consistent, not just in this administration but over several past administrations,” Barab said. “If the way we explain that policy is confusing, if farms are feeling like we’re not complying with the rider, we are more than willing to address that confusion and modify that policy and we are actually in the process of doing that right now.”