What would you do if your family member suddenly and tragically died in an on-farm accident?
You’d first call emergency services. You’d likely then call family members. You’d call close friends. You’d be devastated by your own grief. You’d eventually arrange a funeral or memorial service. You’d spend time deciding the future of your family farm. You’d find a way to keep going.
But I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t think to call the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) or its state equivalent.
That’s exactly the scenario that Zell Eisenmann faced. Zell farmed about 1,400 acres with his brother, Keith, in Michigan. The business operated as EGA Inc.
Keith died in November 2019 when he fell from a barn roof that he was repairing ahead of a storm. The roof was unable to hold his weight and collapsed under him. Zell found his brother’s body.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Michigan’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (MIOSHA) came calling. EGA was required to report Keith’s death within a certain amount of time. But no one did. So MIOSHA fined the farm $12,000 — $5,000 for failing to report the fatality and an additional $7,000 for failing to identify safety measures taken.
Keith’s family appealed the decision. Why would they have to report a fatality for the farm’s owner? It’s his farm, his barn, and his decision to climb up on the roof. Keith was also the corporation’s president and co-owner.
But MIOSHA didn’t care. Employers are required to report all work-related injuries and fatalities. And agriculture isn’t exempt. So the Eisenmann family’s appeal was denied.
This is a tough one.
MIOSHA denied the appeal because it says there are no exceptions for certain industries (e.g. agriculture) or specific positions (e.g. owners and presidents). It says having exceptions increases the risk of injury or death.
And that makes some sense. If the goal is to reduce workplace accidents, then MIOHSA has to have jurisdiction over all employers and employees. Safety has to always be a concern for everyone. And why would more dangerous occupations — such as farming — get a pass?
But the decision rankles. We don’t usually think of agriculture as a profession; we consider it a lifestyle. This was Keith’s farm. His barn. His responsibility. He knew the risks, but he also had a job to do. Why does any government agency have the ability to come in and make a bad situation worse?
Like it or not, we need to shift our perspective. Remember, this is a business (especially if you operate as a limited-liability entity). And as it becomes more sophisticated, we need to be mindful of the rules. We can’t simply ask for exemptions, no matter how unique our profession.
This is one reason why I encourage farmers to have an attorney. I understand the agriculture community is shy when it comes to lawyers. But having your ducks in a row can make the difference between checking all the boxes and paying hefty fines. You don’t know what you don’t know. So why not have a professional on your team who can help you?
A quick five-minute phone call — “Hey, this happened, what do I need to do?” — would’ve made a huge difference.
I understand MIOHSA’s decision seemed unfair. It was unfair. Farming is in a weird transitional phase between “the family farm” and “the family-farm business.” But it’s a future we need to contend with.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.