A potential national rule change by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the definition of the Process Safety Management retail exemption could revise the way retailers store and handle anhydrous ammonia. Investigation of the exemption change suggests it could have a major impact on farmers, as reported below by Betsy Jibben, AgDay TV national reporter.

Nebraska farmer John Oehlerking is not sure if the way he fertilizes his crop today will be the same next year. “I’m sitting in the tractor wondering what I need to do this fall or next spring and how to prepare,” he says.

That’s because OSHA is planning to change the rules governing the storing and handling of anhydrous ammonia. Currently, agricultural retailers have an exemption to OSHA’s safety standards for handling highly hazardous chemicals. But that may change.

OSHA says it changed its interpretation of the type of facility that fits in the retail description. In a statement to AgDay, OSHA says: “Facilities that store and distribute large quantities of highly hazardous chemicals are not retailers.”

Instead, OSHA is putting some of these facilities under the agricultural merchant wholesaler category, which would require new safety measures put in place.

The agency estimates these facilities will have to make roughly $2,100  worth of changes in order to comply. Not everyone agrees with the agency's estimate.

“The cost factor will be horrendous. You can say 4, 5, 6 million dollars. I believe that’s on the low side,” says Frontier Co-op General Manager Randy Robeson.

He says Frontier Co-op has 25 locations in Nebraska, supplying 16,000 tons of anhydrous ammonia. Robeson estimates he will have to double the size of both this liquid and dry fertilizer storage if he has to handle less anhydrous.

“Most likely, we'll get out of the business or handle less," says Robeson.

Ron Velder is president and CEO of Farmers Cooperative. In Nebraska, they supply roughly 53,000 tons of anhydrous a year. He says he will keep supplying; Farmers Cooperative has already made investments in an anhydrous ammonia plant.

“For us to be updated, we’d have to change about sixty tanks. We’re looking at cost anywhere between $8  million to $10 million over time,” says Velder.

Part of that cost includes adapting the standards. For some, that’s added training, documentation, changing out equipment. That also includes storage thanks and piping.

“One of my managers told me it would take six months to get one new tank with the appropriate data label on it. That’s one tank,” said Nebraska Cooperative Council President and General Counsel Rocky Weber.

Robeson, Velder and Weber say a fall switch is not feasible for relying on transportation and building new storage.

“If it’s going to happen over time, then give us some time so we can adapt," Velder says. "It’s not (a) six month (process). It’s going to have to be three to five years."

OSHA says it has given businesses since last July to comply and has been open about the process. In its statement to AgDay, OSHA states:  “OSHA has met with industry groups employers, performed outreach at the local level and offered compliance assistance when needed.”

But farmers say making all these regulatory changes to handling cheapest form of fertilizer is adding a lot of red tape--and expense--during a time of lower farm income. 

“(The impact) could be close to $30  or more an acre. We just can’t sustain that right now,” says Oehlerking.

Congress put a rider in the 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Bill preventing OSHA from requiring retailers to adopt stricter handling and storing standards. Because of that, OSHA says they will not enforce stricter rules until a new fiscal year starts this fall.

Weber says Congress has control of this decision and that the wording in the 2017 Omnibus Bill could make or break OSHA’s conclusion.