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.
People are not pushing for state remedies or calling for a federal government they distrust to improve farm safety to step in. Moreover, Gov. Terry Branstad said 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 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 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,” said Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Yet Seng reports that it has been quiet in general as far as other lawmakers or farm safety specialists stepping up to voice any 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 that government should protect its citizens but added that regulations don’t come without cost to the people who are being regulated. This especially hits hard with a farm culture that is often self-described as stubborn.
“Farmers do not like mandates on their livelihood,” he said.
Rep. Dan Muhlbauer, D-Manilla, and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, put it this way: “I don’t know how you’d put a mandate on common sense.”
The House Agriculture Committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, said government, or farmers for that matter, cannot control a lot of things in farming, such as animal behavior.
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. That is a voluntary program that started at the University of Iowa and requires farms to pass inspections and occupational health screenings.
Stutsman stands by that proposal, saying she would prefer to direct funds to an incentives program rather than 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.
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.
Another issue he 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 can be spread to become widespread catastrophes.
“That sounds good in theory until we look at the detail,” Klein said. “It could quickly spiral into a very expensive program.”
Stutsman, who lost a son to a farming accident, said movement on an incentives program would happen when it affects somebody personally.
“That’s when the time comes,” she said.
New technology is another avenue for farm safety advancements.
“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,” Branstad said.
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 begun in 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.This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.