In the wake of a man’s death last summer while fighting fire on agricultural land, and the fines his employer incurred because of it, farmers need more clarification on firefighting rules, an official said.
Alan von Borstel, president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League and a Sherman County farmer and cattle rancher, spoke at the annual meeting of the Wasco and Sherman County Wheat League chapters Feb. 4 in The Dalles.
As Wheat League officials have talked to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), he said the League board “is torn. Do we want to poke that bear?”
But he said, “I think really, the bear’s been poked.”
John Ruby died fighting the Substation Fire last July. An experienced tractor operator who grew up operating farm equipment, Ruby was plowing a fireline to protect a neighbor’s house when his tractor slid down a steep embankment and became stuck, according to an OSHA report.
His employer, Kaser Diamond K, was fined $3,100: $1,500 for lack of training, $1,500 for lack of assessing hazards to determine what protective equipment was needed for firefighting, and $100 for a lack of safety meetings.
Von Borstel believed that fines would only increase in the future. The federal OSHA feels Oregon’s fines are too small. He was told they are some of the lowest in the nation.
Kaser Diamond K set a new policy of only fighting fire that is in its initial stage and can be safely put out with a fire extinguisher. The policy can be changed if employees get firefighting training.
Under its current policy, employees will not fight any fire that has grown more than 100 feet from its origin, including using water pumpers or building fire line, and will evacuate the area and call 911, according to OSHA documents.
“One of our own gets three citations. So we back up and say ‘Whoa, we need some clarity here.’ It’s not that we’re out there trying to get more regulations,” von Borstel said after the meeting.
He said, “We’re pursuing clarification and if it takes rule change to get there, then so be it.”
He said, “we need that next step: What do you mean by this rule? Can we get an explanation without changing the regulations? If they can’t, change the regulations to make it clearer for us.”
He said in his 40 years of farming and fighting fires, “this is the first really bad accident that I can recall.” He said regulations are usually driven when somebody is hurt or killed.
Von Borstel said after the meeting that it was not the Wheat League’s intention to get involved in the citation, but to gain clarity on rules for the rest of the growers.
He wants OSHA to “answer our questions, help us prepare for the next one so we’re better prepared.”
State rules are explicit about safety steps for firefighters who fight structure fires, and for those who fight forest fires or wildland fires. But when it comes to fire on agricultural land, there is confusion about which rules apply, von Borstel said.
Von Borstel expects more fires in the future, not because of climate change, but for three other reasons: Farmers have switched to no-till practices that leave flammable stubble rather than the firebreak of a tilled, bare field; they’re growing bigger crops; and traffic has increased on area roads.
The Substation Fire that killed Ruby started along Hwy 197 south of The Dalles.
Key issues are getting training for employees and documenting that training, von Borstel said.
He thinks farmers will see basic fire training for everyone, and then each employer will still have to personalize any training they get. “I need to sit down with my employees, go through my equipment, my property, what I expect from them and the do’s and don’ts such as always have an escape route, fight from the black, don’t get in front of the fire. That’s what we need to personalize.”
Blake Rowe, chief executive officer of the Oregon Wheat League, told the group that the League is seeking a balance between helping farmers know what is needed to manage risk and concerns about creating more rules.
He said some wheat growers want to establish methods for meeting those objectives, without formalizing it into OSHA rules.
Rowe said in meetings with OSHA, the Wheat League has three objectives: To preserve the use of fire as a normal farming practice; to continue to use volunteers and farm equipment to fight fire; and to provide protection against liability.
Rowe said OSHA officials weren’t looking to do anything. They were willing to meet with the Wheat League, but wanted the farmers to figure out what they wanted in terms of regulation.
Von Borstel said employers can be on the hook for their employees even if they are fighting fire on a neighbor’s property. He said releasing them from employment is an option, but doesn’t necessarily get the employer off the hook. Training is better.