By Bruce Rolfsen
April 9 --The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's cancelled policy on inspecting small farms continued to draw fire from Republican lawmakers when Labor Secretary Thomas Perez testified April 9 before a Senate appropriations panel.
The Labor Department withdrew the policy on Feb. 10. However, at three recent budget hearings for OSHA, questions about the safety agency continued to focus on farm inspections.
On April 9, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee's Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, reminded Perez that he was among the 43 senators who in December 2013 asked Perez to reverse OSHA's small farm inspection policy.
At the time, OSHA policy allowed compliance officers to inspect “nonfarming operations,” such as grain storage facilities, on any farm, including those with 10 or fewer workers that Congress exempted from OSHA scrutiny.
“My understanding is that you have taken a step back?” Moran asked Perez.
Perez responded that the department has withdrawn the OSHA policy memorandum and that the department takes Congress's budget rider prohibiting inspections of small farms “very, very seriously.”
“We have instructed the team at OSHA that when you are in a circumstance where you discover that it is a family farm--case closed,” Perez said.
Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who was the first senator in December to raise concerns about OSHA's policy, said the department had been attempting to get around the congressional restriction by classifying some parts of a farm's operations, such as grain storage, as not being part of the farm.
Perez told Johanns the department doesn't have any current plans to return to the old policy. The department is working with the Agriculture Department to draft a new policy.
“What we're trying to do a better job of, is determining at the outset what are the operations we are seeking to go into,” Perez said. If the answer is a small farm, the inspection is shut down, the secretary added.
Perez cited examples of small farms that housed a tomato canning operation or stored grain for other farms as examples of cases that weren't clear-cut.
“Sometimes the question of whether you are a family farm is easier said than done,” Perez told the lawmakers.
Johanns and committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) encouraged the department to work with the Future Farmers of America and farm bureaus on educating farm families about agriculture workplace hazards.
No other OSHA programs were brought up by the lawmakers.
Moran pointed out that the White House has proposed budget increases for Labor Department enforcement agencies such as OSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Wage and Hour Division, while recommended funding for training programs remains flat.
“Too often it seems to me the regulations are part of the problem in creating job opportunities for Americans,” Moran said.
The White House requested $11.8 billion for the Labor Department in fiscal 2015, including $565 million for OSHA, a 2.3 percent boost over 2014's enacted OSHA budget.
Harkin defended the budget's enforcement initiatives, such as a $41 million increase for Wage and Hour Division to hire 300 new investigators.
“The department's budget proposes increases for protecting the rights of workers,” Harkin said. “These are important investments that build on key accomplishments of the this department and subcommittee.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jim Stimson at email@example.com
Details about OSHA's 2015 budget request are available at http://www.dol.gov/dol/budget/2015/PDF/CBJ-2015-V2-12.pdf.
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