The Corner Cubicle: Politics and the OSHA/Small-Farm Hysteria

March 14, 2014
Regardless of whether he was right or wrong, Sen. Mike Johanns’s campaign to defend small farmers against possible OSHA enforcement reminds us that safety and politics don’t mix well.

This past December, Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska took a break from his full-time job – preaching to anyone within the sound of his voice about the evils of Obamacare – to take on an equally loathsome foe of democracy and capitalism: OSHA.

Goosed by OSHA's $132,000 fines levied against a grain-storage facility in his home state, Johanns took to the Senate floor to condemn OSHA's role in carrying out President Obama's "anti-agriculture agenda." In case you weren't watching C-SPAN that day, Johanns accused OSHA of thumbing its nose at the law – by circumventing language that has been included in federal budgets since 1976 explicitly to forbid the agency from enforcing safety regulations at farms with 10 or fewer employees.

For Johanns, a retiring senator who grew up on a farm, OSHA's "overreach" was heaven-sent. It was right in his sweet spot, at the crossroads of agriculture – his signature issue – and Big Brother run amok in the nation's Heartland. It fit with the GOP's narrative that Obama's Big Government is destroying everything that's whole and decent in our society. It made for a David vs. Goliath storyline pitting regulators – drunk with power and driven by spite – versus simple farmers.

"This administration – whether it's the EPA or now OSHA – has placed a target on the backs of ranchers and farmers when it comes to pursuing an ever-expanding regulatory agenda," Johanns said on the Senate floor. Sure, worker safety is important, he added, "but farmers know better than bureaucrats how to keep their employees and family safe."

They say you should pick your battles, and clearly this was a winnable one for Johanns. It had the added perk of being politically expedient as well. It probably wasn't too hard for him to enlist the support of several dozen of his fellow Republicans (and even a few Democrats) from Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Iowa and other states where agriculture has a major presence. In an election year, I'm guessing it didn't take the kind of machinations that you see on Netflix's "House of Cards" to convince his colleagues to sign a letter decrying OSHA's abuse of power.

Regardless of whether Johanns's motivations were pure or political, he won. The story has received national media play, most of which has painted an unflattering portrait of the agency – bloodthirsty OSHA inspectors converging on an idyllic farmhouse, where an honest, wholesome, God-fearing family is hunkered down in the tornado shelter, contemplating their imminent demise.

Johanns successfully lobbied for the latest federal budget to include language reiterating that OSHA must stay away from small farms, and calling for OSHA to meet with the Department of Agriculture before making any interpretations of its enforcement purview regarding small farms. OSHA did so, and in early February promised that it will issue new guidance on the issue. That pleased the Republican leaders of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, who reminded us in a statement that OSHA's guidance "was flawed and legally suspect" in the first place.

I'm not a legal expert, so I can't say whether or not OSHA's small-farm guidance was "legally suspect" or even questionable. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. I only know that OSHA says it issued the guidance after a dramatic spike in fatalities caused by grain engulfments. Of all the possible ways to die, I can't imagine what it's like to drown in grain. I also can't imagine that OSHA issued the now-infamous June 2011 memo regarding small-farm enforcement as part of some sinister "anti-agriculture" agenda. I have to believe that the agency was thinking of those 31 poor souls who lost their lives suffocating in grain bins in 2010.

I don't mean to sound like an OSHA apologist. It's a government agency staffed with human beings, which means it's inherently imperfect. But it's also in an impossible situation. Whenever OSHA tries to introduce new regulations that could make a real impact on workplace safety (I'm not referring to the small-farm guidance, just speaking in generalities), conservatives and the business community fight the agency every step of the way. But when a factory blows up, the first question is: "Where was OSHA?"

My rather circuitous point is this: Safeguarding workers' lives should be a politically agnostic endeavor. It should transcend party lines and administrations. In the real world, of course, it isn't and it doesn't. As perhaps the most notorious icon of government regulation (maybe next to EPA), OSHA probably always will be a political lightning rod. When lightning strikes, I worry that workers are the ones who bear the brunt of the damage.

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