Support from Iowa lawmakers for stricter farm safety regulation does not exist in their new legislative session. This is despite agriculture being Iowa’s deadliest occupation and limited Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforcement and coverage.
No one is pushing for state remedies, or calling for a federal government they distrust to improve farm safety to step in. Moreover, Gov. Terry Branstad says he would not support a new or more aggressive program for agricultural safety.
“I think that would be a detriment to agriculture,” Branstad told IowaWatch in an interview at the opening of the session. “We have to be careful about making it too difficult for farmers to be able to perform their duties.”
Farm safety measures such as tractor rollover protection and grain bin harnessing are required under Iowa OSHA law. But as a previous IowaWatch investigation revealed, coverage under in this law favors large farms and leaves smaller farms on their own to practice safe farming.
“OSHA has not come forward as a champion of ag safety,” Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said.
Yet, Seng reports that it has been quiet in general as far as other lawmakers or farm safety specialists coming forward to voice complaint about the current level of regulation on farms.
“If nobody is insisting on this, we let the sleeping dogs lie,” he said.
Seng said he recognizes the dangers of farm work as a result of long, hard hours. “It almost gives you nightmares when you think of something grabbing your pant leg and dragging you in.”
The governor is no stranger to farm dangers. “I grew up on a farm,” Branstad said. “I know that agriculture can be a dangerous occupation.”
He recalled driving a tractor at age 5. “They had to put an extra extension on the clutch so I could reach it,” he said.
Yet, the governor remains weary of over-regulating.
He expressed frustration with bureaucrats in Washington that “don’t know anything about agriculture, but want to add regulations.” Federal, one-size-fits-all regulations, Branstad said, will “have unforeseen consequences that damage our ability to be competitive.”
Seng said government should protect its citizens, but that regulations don’t come without cost to the people who are being regulated.
This hits especially hard with a farm culture that is often self-described as stubborn. “Farmers do not like mandates on their livelihood,” Seng said.
Rep. Dan Muhlbauer, D-Manilla, put it this way: “I don’t know how you’d put a mandate on common sense.”
Muhlbauer, a member of the House Agricultural Committee, said he focuses on educating farmers to, for example, take breaks during long hours. He said the key mainly is a matter of farm workers simply slowing down. “Be careful and watch what you’re doing,” he said.
The House Agriculture Committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, said he is confident that Iowans don’t want the federal government getting any more involved.
Klein said farm safety is close to his heart. With a grandfather who lost his hand while farming and three young children being raised on his fifth-generation farm, he said, “their safety concerns me greatly when I think back to things we did back in the day.”
Klein said government, or farmers for that matter, cannot control a lot of things in farming, such as animal behavior.
Seng said he relies on experts to determine a need for any farm safety bill. One of the experts he trusts most is Kelley Donham, director of Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, or I-CASH, a program run out of the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.
Although he hasn’t heard any farm safety proposals from Donham, Seng said he would push for any that are based on Donham’s expertise. “Kelley would come to the ag committee, do a presentation, and then we could present it as a committee bill,” he said.
“It doesn’t hurt to talk about it,” Seng said. “Dialogue is always a positive.”
Incentives for safe farming
Branstad also showed no interest in an incentives program for safe farming, although Rep. Sally Stutsman, D-Iowa City, another member of the House Agricultural Committee, previously told IowaWatch she would be interested in talking about such a program.
Stutsman suggested giving monetary incentives or tax credits to farms that meet Certified Safe Farm requirements. The Certified Safe Farm program is a voluntary program that started at the UI and requires farms to pass certain inspections and occupational health screenings.
Stutsman stands by that proposal, even saying she would prefer to direct funds to an incentives program over further farm safety awareness education.
“I think people respond to when there are incentives to things,” Stutsman said. “It’s kind of a puzzle to me why there wouldn’t be any interest in providing some incentives.”
Seng said he sees promise in the idea of incentives, especially if that incentive is insurance rebates.
“That would be a win-win I would think,” Seng said. As long as the program is voluntary, he said he sees that insurance companies would really like it and the farmer would feel he did something for the safety of his family.
Klein, who also serves as vice chairman of the joint Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, has financial concerns when it comes to Stutsman’s idea. He wonders where that money is going to come from and how much.
“We fight for every penny,” Klein said.
Another issue that Klein sees with an incentives plan based on numerous inspections is biosecurity. With inspectors traveling from farm to farm, livestock diseases such as foot-and-mouth or Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) can be spread to become widespread catastrophes. This means the program would need separate personnel to avoid contamination and ensure biosecurity, which adds even more expense.
“That sounds good in theory until we look at the detail,” Klein said. “It could quickly spiral into a very expensive program,” he said.
Stutsman, who lost a son to a farming accident, said movement on an incentives program will happen when it impacts somebody personally. “That’s when the time comes,” she said.
Technology improvements and education
New technology is another avenue for farm safety advancements.
Branstad said, “I think we’ve made great progress in reducing some of the dangers that are involved with the different ways the machinery is made today and all the different computer and other mechanisms that have been built into combines and tractors today.”
Overall though, Branstad said he favors using education to improve farm safety issues.. He said he would continue to financially support safety programs such as Farm Safety for Just Kids, a program out of Urbandale that works to reduce farm accidents by making children aware of dangers on the farm.
The governor’s proposed budget allots $25,000 to the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship for agricultural education in the next fiscal year. This amount is consistent with fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2013.