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OSHA, ERTK -- They Aren’t Just Found in Alphabet Soup

Apr 17, 2011

There are increasing reports of OSHA inspections on dairy farms in the Midwest, so it may only be a matter of time before your farm is on the inspection list of one or more alphabet soup agencies.


ChuckSchwartau photoBy Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension

As kids, many of us enjoyed alphabet soup for lunch.  Today, when we see a lot of letters that look a bit like alphabet soup, most tend to cringe rather than salivate. 

“OSHA” is a pretty well recognized set of letters representing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA is charged with protecting the health and welfare of workers from a wide range of hazards. Farms are generally subject to the same rules as every other employer.

What farmers should note, however, is that by rule, employers with less than 10 employees are technically “under the radar” of OSHA, so they’re unlikely to be inspected. What can change that situation for a farm is an injury to an employee that may trigger an OSHA investigation. That can happen regardless of the business size. 

If OSHA audits your farm, there are several things they may ask to see. Among key items will be your Employee Right to Know (ERTK) program. So -- what is it and how do you comply? An ERTK is a plan for training your employees about the hazards that may be encountered on your farm, the potential consequences of the hazards and how to deal with them on the farm.  An ERTK don’t have to be costly to develop and implement, but it does need someone who pays attention to the details and makes sure the process is followed on the farm.

Following are several key points:

A. Training shall be made available by, and at the cost of, the employer.

B. Records of training must be maintained by the employer, retained for five years.

C. Information and training programs may relate to specific exposure hazards; the common hazards; or to the hazards of a complete production operation, whichever is more effective. Specific information on individual hazardous substances or mixtures and harmful physical agents must be available in writing for employees' use.

D. Once training has been completed, an employer may request the employee to sign a statement that the employee has been trained as required by specific sections of law.

E. Frequency of training.

  1. Training must be provided to an employee prior to initial assignment to a worksite.
  2. Additional training must be provided relating to hazardous substances to which employees might be exposed.
  3. Training must be provided at intervals of not greater than one year. Maintenance of a private applicator's certification or commercial applicator's license fulfills the annual training requirement.
  4. Employees performing the same or similar job assignments for more than one employer during the current growing season need only be trained once.

F. An employer may be required to demonstrate how their training program meets the requirements of the law.

G. The employer shall maintain current information for training or information requests by employees.

These are only the basics of an ERTK program. Specifics and guides for complying with the rules can be found in “An Employer’s Guide to Developing an Employee Right-To-Know Program.” This guide is available from OSHA in an online format from sites such as This is on the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry website, but other states and the federal OSHA website should have the same guide available.

One other thing to remember is the training needs to be understandable by all your employees, so on many farms this will mean two offerings -- one in English and one in Spanish. There may be extra cost to secure a Spanish-speaking trainer, but not conducting and documenting the training may also result in a significant fine for non-compliance. Taking the positive step will probably be much less costly.

Finally, take time for a safety inspection on your farm. Involve your employees as well as your own time. There are increasing reports of OSHA inspections on dairy farms in the Midwest, so it may only be a matter of time before your farm is on the inspection list of one or more alphabet soup agencies.

Chuck Schwartau has been with the University of Minnesota Extension Service for 31 years. As part of the Extension Dairy Team, he focuses on workforce development and management, dairy business organization and risk management. Contact him at or (507) 536-6301.

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