Protecting workers from fall hazards has always been high on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) priority list. However, in 2011, the organization honed in on agriculture’s enforcement — or lack of enforcement — of fall protection-related standards and regulations for rolling stock, e.g., railcars and hopper trucks.
Though OSHA’s “4-foot rule,” or general industry standard 29 CFR 1910, requires employees be tied-off or restrained from falling anytime they are elevated over 4 feet, the grain industry has been exempt from rolling stock violations due to the 1996 Miles Memo. Sent by John Miles, OSHA director of compliance programs, to his fellow inspectors, the internal memo states that “falls from rolling stock would not be cited under the fall protection standard because it was not appropriate to cite exposure to fall hazards from tops of rolling stock unless the stock was inside of or contiguous to a structure where fall protection is feasible.”
In 2010, OSHA deemed it outdated, and submitted specific questions to industry stakeholders regarding the application and development of fall protection standards for rolling stock in agriculture.
In response to this inquiry, the National Grain & Feed Association (NGFA) immediately submitted its comments to OSHA, but that’s where the discussion ended. Though OSHA has not issued a formal directive, in 2011 grain operations were cited for failing to provide fall protection for employees working on rolling stock.
NGFA’s director of safety and regulatory affairs, Jess McCluer, likens the vagueness of this directive to the complications presented by OSHA’s sweep auger letter of interpretation: “Not only has OSHA not clearly stated its expectations, but interpretation of the guideline could vary with each office, region and inspector.”
The question now becomes what constitutes a violation, and what level of rolling stock fall protection is necessary from a contiguous structure?
“It’s causing some confusion within the industry on what’s applicable,” says McCluer. “What is the limit on what you can and can’t do? Is OSHA saying that you may need fall protection if you are, say, 20 cars away from the loading facility? We’re not sure.”
In late October, OSHA cited Cooperative Producers Inc., a grain elevator facility in Franklin, NE, with a proposed $70,000 penalty after citing a willful violation where the employer did not “furnish a place of employment which was free of recognized hazards… in that employees were exposed to the hazards of falls when walking/working on the top of railroad cars, or rolling stock.”
According to an OSHA press release, Charles E. Adkins, OSHA’s regional administrator in Kansas City, MO, says: “Cooperative Producers failed to provide its employees with a safe and healthful environment. It is imperative that all employers take the necessary steps to eliminate hazards from the workplace.”
Another notable citation involves the Federal Grain Inspection Services (FGIS), which was cited in October 2011 for lack of fall protection based on an informal employee interview at a Corpus Christi sub-office. The outcome of this action against a government agency may change the policy, impacting the entire industry. (Source: GIPSA)
McCluer explains: “If OSHA issues a citation, and says it is part of the company’s abatement that they agree to do x, y, and z — well, if OSHA is also in the process of potentially developing a new rule regarding rolling stock fall protection, whatever they put in as part of that abatement may not comply with the new standard.”
What safeguards or updates can a business proactively put in place to protect itself before the OSHA inspector comes knocking?
“There are a lot of variables involved here,” McCluer says. “It’s not a clear-cut issue, but it is recommended that a facility have a sound safety and health management program.”