BOISE — The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to soon start random, surprise worker-safety inspections of Idaho farms, dairies and ranches, based on concerns about recent agricultural workplace fatalities.

Dave Kearns, area director of OSHA’s Boise office, said he’s making revisions to a draft inspection policy created by his staff.

The policy will then be forwarded to OSHA’s Seattle office for review by officials and attorneys, and Kearns hopes to have the document in the hands of the agency’s national office for final approval within a few months.

“Most of the (agricultural) inspections we do now are in response to a tragic incident,” Kearns said, adding that complaints also occasionally trigger inspections.

Kearns said there’s been a spike in Idaho’s agricultural deaths since 2012.

Since last April, he said four of 10 OSHA-investigated workplace fatalities in Idaho have involved agriculture — an ATV roll-over, a feed wagon backed over a dairy worker on an ATV, an 18-year-old day laborer succumbed to heat exposure while weeding a wheat field and a worker drowned in a dairy lagoon.

“It used to be there’d be one or two or maybe no agricultural deaths,” Kearns said. “A few (operations) may be putting forth real efforts at worker safety, but as a whole, the agricultural community in Idaho has got a long ways to go make safe and healthy workplaces a part of their culture.”

Kearns explained the policy won’t represent a new rule, which would necessitate an extensive public scoping process, but will rather be a “special emphasis program” OSHA is authorized to create at the national, regional or local level based on “hazards that are serious and need special attention.” No public comment will be taken on the inspection policy, which will apply to operations with more than 10 non-family workers, Kearns said.

OSHA already has similar “special emphasis” surprise inspection programs in place for Idaho covering such items and activities as logging, fall hazards, forklift operations and grain handling. Nationwide programs cover areas such as trenching, high-hazard chemicals and combustible dusts.

Kearns anticipates conducting 10 to 20 surprise inspections annually of agricultural operations chosen at random. Fines would be obligatory for serious violations, ranging up to $7,000 for large employers committing infractions with a “high severity and high probability of an incident.”

Kearns said OSHA also intends to focus on outreach to improve worker safety. OSHA recently conducted a Safety Fest with an agricultural component in Boise, and Kearns frequently gives speeches to employers seeking to emphasize workplace safety.

Furthermore, OSHA Consultation Service is available to review workplaces with fewer than 250 employees for safety risks, without the threat of punishment for violations.

Rick Naerebout, director of operations with Idaho Dairymen’s Association, supports OSHA’s outreach goals, believing they provide the best opportunity to reach the most people with limited resources. His organization has also promoted worker safety events, such as a University of Idaho and Idaho State Department of Agriculture worker safety and training program March 8 in Jerome.

Naerebout, however, believes random inspections would cost more and offer less benefit.

Kearns agreed outreach is important but said the threat of an inspection can entice employers to change their safety cultures.

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation spokesman John Thompson also supports an outreach focus rather than new inspections. Thompson sees no pattern in Idaho’s recent fatal accidents to justify an inspection program.

“If there were some kind of connection between them, I would have to concede something needs to be done,” Thompson said. “Those are just four random accidents.”

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