Labor officials quash regs for family farms

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The Labor Department is quashing controversial family farm regulations after coming under pressure from Republican lawmakers.

Officials at the department assured House Republicans they have “prohibited” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from taking enforcement actions against small farms that are exempted from the agency's regulations.

"The Department of Labor takes the appropriations language very seriously and has prohibited OSHA activities at farming operations that employ 10 or fewer employees," Assistant Labor Secretary Brian Kennedy wrote in a letter to the House Education and Workforce Committee, which had complained about OSHA's regulatory efforts in a January letter to the agency. 

The committee released the agency's letter Tuesday.

"The department's family-farming guidance was flawed and legally suspect," Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) and Workforce Protections subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said in a joint statement. "We are pleased this misguided policy has been withdrawn, and the department has recognized the legitimate concerns of policymakers and family farmers."

Republican lawmakers were upset about OSHA guidance issued in 2011 that appeared to open the door for agency inspectors to regulate family farms.

Walberg's subcommittee held a hearing last week to discuss Republicans' concerns.

"It's very troubling to see [OSHA] circumvent the public rule-making process in order to significantly alter health and safety standards," Walberg said at the hearing.

Democrats on the committee accused Republicans of trying to "undermine" OSHA's authority. 

Since the 1970s, Congress has prohibited OSHA from regulating farms with 10 or fewer employees, according to the Republican reading of the law.

But Republicans have accused the agency of maneuvering around these protections for small farmers by claiming jurisdiction over the nonfarming operations of farms, such as grain storage.

In the letter, Kennedy said OSHA had removed the controversial guidance from its website and would coordinate with the Department of Agriculture to issue new guidance that complies with the law.

"In conducting inspections of farming operations, OSHA strives to ensure full compliance with the small farming operations exemption," Kennedy wrote.

OSHA field offices will now be required to check with the national office to determine whether a small farm is exempt from regulations.

Kennedy said OSHA originally issued the guidance in response to an increasing number of deaths at grain facilities.

OSHA reported that 57 workers were trapped in grain in 2010, and 31 of them died. That was the highest number of deaths since 1964.

But OSHA noted that the number of deaths in grain facilities fell by 74 percent from 2010-2012, during which period the agency issued the controversial guidance. 

"As you may be aware, fatalities can occur in grain storage facilities when workers become buried [entrapped] by grain as they walk on moving grain or attempt to clear grain built up on the inside of a grain bin," Kennedy wrote. "Moving grain acts like quick sand, entrapping and suffocating the worker."