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Webinar gives farmers answers about OSHA dairy farm inspections starting in July

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Farmers were told during a webinar that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will start random, unannounced inspections in July at dairy farms across upstate New York.

Farmers, who will be fined for hazards found by inspectors, asked lots of questions about OSHA’s newly instituted “Local Emphasis Program” for dairy farms during the webinar led Friday by Ronald L. Williams, compliance assistance specialist at OSHA’s Syracuse office. The office serves a 24-county Central New York region that includes the north country.

Farmers have good reason to be concerned about the program launched by OSHA, which in 2012 started a similar inspection program for dairy farms in Wisconsin. The most current OSHA statistics from 2012 show that 1,346 fines were issued to businesses across Central New York, including farms. Fines averaged about $2,500, with the highest about $7,000.

Random OSHA 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, Mr. Williams said. Despite what many believe, OSHA does not have the authority to inspect the housing of farmworkers. Those inspections are done by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

Mr. Williams’s presentation highlighted a dozen hazardous areas on which OSHA inspectors focus during visits, such as a failure to implement barriers at manure lagoons, to maintain protective equipment on tractors and skid-steer loaders and to provide training programs to safeguard employees from being harmed by machinery and chemicals.

All tractors manufactured after October 1976, for example, must be equipped with roll-over protective structures, Mr. Williams said. Sink eyewash stations must be located near where corrosive chemicals are used and warning signs must be posted at hazardous areas.

During visits, inspectors also will ask whether accidents with employees involving cattle and machinery have occurred, Mr. Williams said.

“If we come to your establishment, we’re going to look to see if you’ve had accidents where employees have been struck by cows and bulls,” he said. “We’re going to check if you have been sitting down with employees and training them how to handle” animals.

Manure lagoons that don’t have barriers surrounding them may pose a risk to employees who operate tanker trucks and tractors near their perimeter, Mr. Williams said. During his presentation, he showed pictures from an accident in which a tanker truck slid into a lagoon, forcing an employee to make a dangerous escape while the vehicle’s tires were still moving.

“You need something to stop a tanker or slow-moving tractor from backing into a lagoon,” Mr. Williams said, adding that gates or stop-logs could be used to do so.

Responding to a question about whether farmers will have a chance to correct violations before they are fined, Mr. Williams said fines are usually assessed by inspectors during visits.

“If it’s a serious hazard, there will be a proposed fine, even if the hazard was corrected during the inspection,” he said.

OSHA has not decided how many random inspections will be conducted in upstate New York this year, Mr. Williams said. He said the number conducted by the Syracuse office will depend on how busy its staff is with other priorities.

“We’re covering 24 counties here, and our first priority is for unplanned events, referrals and complaints,” he said. “Inspections will also be conducted by our Buffalo and Albany offices, and we’re going to randomly select sites from all farms across New York state.”

Some upstate farmers have voiced concerns about OSHA inspectors who have conducted inspections with representatives from activist groups, according to Karl J. Czymmek, senior extension associate for Cornell Pro-Dairy, who addressed the issue during the webinar. These so-called “walk-around representatives” are legally allowed to accompany OSHA, but farmers have the right to refuse to allow them on their property, he said. If a farmer refuses their entry, OSHA will then decide whether a representative is needed to conduct the visit, Mr. Czymmek said.

“They could decide whether to go without that representative, or could decide to get a warrant to bring a representative in,” he said.

The webinar was cosponsored by Farm Credit East, the Northeast Producers Association, the New York Farm Bureau, Cornell University’s Pro-Dairy program and the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health. The presentation from the webinar is available for playback at http://wdt.me/x85rQG.

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