Small farms have been off-limits to the federal agency that oversees workplace safety for decades. But lawmakers in North Dakota and other states have grown sufficiently concerned that they’re warning the Obama administration to keep regulators away from family farms and to preserve years of precedent.
In recent days, members of Congress from both parties have signed on to separate letters directed to U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. The letters express concern that small farms are becoming the subject of new federal scrutiny and warn that only Congress can approve changes that would allow the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to inspect small farms.
Since 1976 Congress has banned OSHA from regulating farm operations with 10 or fewer employees. But concern has been growing among farm-state members of Congress since a 2011 memo asserted the agency can regulate so-called “post-harvest activities” like storing harvests and drying of crops.
Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer, both North Dakota Republicans, have complained about the issue and signed on to letters to Perez. The House letter sent this week said that small farm operations are already subject to other regulations.
“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,” reads the letter from 83 members of the House, including Cramer. “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 Senate’s letter to Perez, sent in late December, makes similar points. It prompted OSHA officials recently to try and clarify their intent.
Justin Barab, OSHA’s deputy administrator, said on a recent conference call that the agency has no intent to target small farms for inspections. He said the agency was responding to an increase in deaths related to grain storage and was working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make its intent clear to farmers.
OSHA’s assurances have not been enough for many lawmakers — the House sent its letter even after Barab’s comments — and local farmers and advocates say there is a longstanding wariness of federal regulators.
Any hint of a change in policy provokes suspicion, said Pete Hanebutt, director of public policy for the North Dakota Farm Bureau.
“In general terms, small business owners of any type are somewhat leery to allow any government agency to examine the way they do things,” he said. “Since most small farms are family operations, I’m sure that our members would feel like they don’t need OSHA to tell them how to take care of their own backyard.”
Hanebutt said that most small farms in North Dakota are family-run operations with perhaps one or two non-family members working on them. He said it didn’t make sense to have OSHA involved.
“The only people who are going to be on that farm are you and your spouse or your family, people you know very closely,” he said. “You obviously have your family’s best interests at heart.”