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In latest appropriations bill, Congress favors politics over safety in grain facilities

Grain_bins_Flickr_Photo_By_Toby_d1The hazards associated with grain bin storage and other “post-harvest” activities are well documented, and 2010 saw a record number of grain bin fatalities, with 26 workers perishing in these facilities.

Therefore, it is no surprise that OSHA has placed an emphasis on protecting workers’ safety and health in these grain facilities; as of 2011, OSHA inspectors now inspect grain bins at farms to ensure their safety.

Yet, some members of Congress are so up in arms about this that they added language to an omnibus appropriations bill  passed this week that “re-affirms” that OSHA does not have the authority to expand its regulatory reach to small farms.

Congress has repeatedly attached riders to OSHA’s appropriations prohibiting the agency from enforcing the OSH Act on farms with fewer than 10 employees. However, OSHA contends that these facilities’ grain operations are not exempt- and are fraught with hazards.  

So why the push now to further limit OSHA’s regulatory ability? Coincidentally (or not), Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), the lawmaker hawking the language, learned last month that a farm in Nebraska was potentially facing $132,000 in fines following a 2011 inspection of the farm’s grain bins. That inspection resulted in 16 potential safety and regulatory violations, of which three were classified as “willful” violations that had significantly higher penalties.

In response, Sen. Johanns corralled his likeminded, “family farm friendly” lawmakers to sign on to a letter to OSHA arguing that the agency should seek congressional approval before enforcing regulations on family farms.  

To see Congress get so riled up over OSHA’s emphasis program to address a very serious, still all-too-common hazard is mind-boggling. This is not so much an issue of “regulatory overreach,” as critics contend. It’s actually just a regulatory agency seeking to enact a remedy for a pattern of life-threatening conditions they” ve seen during inspections.

In fact, because Congress has continually underfunded OSHA throughout its history, the agency doesn’thave the resources to inspect many injuries and fatalities incurred in grain bins.

“OSHA has clearly not violated the terms of the congressional rider prohibiting the agency from inspecting small farming operations. In fact, due to the rider’s provisions, the vast majority of all reported grain entrapments are not investigated by OSHA,” Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told the Green Bay Press Gazette.  

These lawmakers should step back and allow OSHA to keep their constituents safe on the job.

*Flickr photo by Pete Zarria