Dairy farms across upstate New York will be held to tougher enforcement of safety rules by the government, starting next fall.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will begin conducting inspections at random when the federal fiscal year starts Oct. 1, Ronald L. Williams told farmers during a presentation Tuesday at the Copenhagen Fire Hall hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson and Lewis counties.
Mr. Williams, a compliance assistance specialist at OSHA’s Syracuse office, said OSHA has decided to launch a “dairy local emphasis program” in New York to curb the increasing number of farm-related accidents and deaths in the state. About 20 farmers attending the workshop learned about a dozen farm hazards that cause most OSHA violations. For example, all tractors manufactured after October 1976 must be equipped with roll-over protective structures; manure lagoons must be protected with barriers to avoid machinery-related accidents; a sink eyewash station must be situated where corrosive chemicals are used, and warning signs must be posted at areas where employees could be physically harmed.
Farmers peppered Mr. Williams with questions throughout the two-hour workshop, which was followed by an afternoon tour of Milk Street Dairy, Woodville, led by James Carrabba, agricultural safety specialist at the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health.
Anxiety about OSHA inspections is pervasive among farmers, and for a reason: In 2012, inspection officers from the agency’s 24-county Central New York region, which includes the north country, handed out 1,346 violation citations to businesses during 592 inspections. Fines totaled $2.6 million, with the average about $2,500 and the highest about $7,000. The inspections included various businesses, including agriculture, manufacturing and construction. It was unclear how many of the violations pertained to farms.
OSHA officers now inspect dairy farms only when they receive a safety or health-related complaint or referral from an employee, resident or other agency, Mr. Williams said. Starting next fall, the agency will begin conducting inspections at random on dairy farms. OSHA started a similar inspection program in Wisconsin in 2012.
“We’ll come up with a listing of all establishments, and then we’ll randomly choose them for inspections,” Mr. Williams said.
A lively discussion during the meeting centered on what rights OSHA inspectors have during farm visits. Inspections are permitted only on farms that have 11 or more employees, and/or have established a temporary labor camp during the past 12 months. Despite what many believe, OSHA does not have the authority to inspect the living arrangements of farmworkers, Mr. Williams said; those inspections are done by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.
Dairy farmer William J. Marks, a managing partner at Marks Farms in Lowville, said he is disconcerted that OSHA inspectors sometimes are accompanied by representatives from advocacy groups when they conduct inspections. One such group he referred to is the Workers’ Center of Central New York, a Syracuse-based organization that advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrant farmworkers.
“There are some advocacy people that OSHA is dealing with, and these groups claim they have the same rights as OSHA,” Mr. Marks said. “But you can tell them to get off your site because they don’t have the authority.
But we don’t know how to handle it, because these advocacy groups come on hard. Is it my job to call the police? Because I think OSHA should be responsible to make sure they’re not there, because they’ve created a liability.”
In response, Mr. Williams said farmers have the right to refuse access to advocacy groups that wish to participate in OSHA inspections. He said OSHA would be responsible for advising such a group to leave if a farmer objects. But he did not know whether the agency could force the group to do so.
Mr. Marks continued, “How do we comply with any of these regulations? I’ve dealt with OSHA people throughout the state, and it’s all up for interpretation.”
Farmers learned Tuesday that, on average, it takes OSHA about six months to resolve an investigation.
Michael R. Burger, owner of Deer Run Dairy in Adams, said his farm already has made some changes to comply with OSHA regulations. It has improved its training program, for instance, to ensure employees know about the farm’s health and safety policies. Though the OSHA guidelines have spurred Mr. Burger to make changes, he said, most large dairy operations already provide a safe working environment without government intervention.
“The problem is that farming is not like operating a factory because we’re busy doing different things all the time,” Mr. Burger said. “Accidents are going to happen, and not necessarily because of work safety issues.”
Farmers can view a webinar on OSHA compliance or download the PowerPoint presentation from Tuesday’s workshop at http://wdt.me/o5UVNf.