OSHA issues new guidance on the small farm exemption

Friday, August 01st, 2014
Peggy Kirk Hall, Asst. Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) faced harsh criticism recently when the agency inspected and issued fines to small farms engaged in grain storage activities.  The farms argued that OSHA had no authority to do so because of the "small farm exemption" that limits OSHA’s authority to enforce safety regulations on small farms.  This week, OSHA released a guidance memorandum that attempts to clarify how its regional administrators should interpret the small farm exemption.  The agency's new guidance focuses on whether an activity on a small farm is “not related to farming operations and not necessary to gain economic value from products produced on the farm.”

The small farm exemption and OSHA's earlier interpretation

Since 1976, Congress has prohibited OSHA from using any of its funds to enforce safety regulations on "small farms," those farm operations that employ 10 or fewer employees and do not maintain a temporary labor camp.  In recent years, however, the agency turned its regulatory attention to grain operations on small farms.  OSHA justified its inspections and enforcement actions for grain storage activities by arguing that “post-harvest” grain storage and processing activities differ from “farming operations” and “core agricultural operations” and thus do not fit within the small farm exemption (see our earlier post).  The agency withdrew this interpretation of the small farm exemption earlier this year.

OSHA’s new guidance memorandum

In its July 29, 2014 memorandum to OSHA regional administrators, the agency now states that a small farm would not be subject to OSHA enforcement if it simply stores its own grain on the farm, sells grain from the farm or grows, stores and grinds grain on the farm to feed its own livestock.  These activities fit within the definition of a "farming operation" because the activities are "necessary to gain economic value from grain grown on the farm."

But the agency also explains that other types of activities on a small farm could be subject to OSHA authority.   According to the agency, if a small farm engages in activities that “are not related to farming operations and are not necessary to gain economic value from products produced on the farm, those activities are not exempt from OSHA enforcement.”

The agency provides a few examples of activities on small farms that would not be exempt because they are not related to farming operations or are not necessary to gain economic value from farm products. The list includes grain-based activities, but also addresses food processing examples:

  • A grain handling operation that stores and sells grain grown on other farms.
  • A food processing facility for making cider from apples grown on the farm or for processing large carrots into "baby" carrots.
  • Milling of grain into flour used to make baked goods.
  • The agency also explains that food manufacturing operations are not exempt from OSHA enforcement activities under the appropriations rider, even if they take place on a small farm.

OSHA's new guidance memorandum on the small farm exemption is available here.

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