CA OSHA Rules Operators Must be Present on Autonomous Machines

USAgNet - 06/28/2022

California's Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board delivered a blow to advancing autonomous equipment in the state. The board voted 4-3 at its June 16 meeting to reject Monarch Tractor's Petition 596 to amend the state labor code that would "allow for the use of driver optional tractors without a human operator stationed at the vehicular controls within a strict set of safety guidelines."

Farm Equipment magazine reports that Cal/OSHA denied a similar Petition 571 brought by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers in 2019, citing many of the same reasons. Far West Equipment Dealers Association (FWEDA) joined a coalition of agricultural interests, including producers, supporting the petition to advance the use of autonomous equipment to improve worker safety, and address labor shortages and an increasing demand for emerging agricultural technology that offers sustainable career development for the future. Growers say driverless equipment would allow them to increase productivity with efficiency and continuous 24-hour operations.

"This is a significant setback in deploying real-world solutions to improve worker safety, increase productivity and adapt emerging technology," FWEDA President & CEO Joani Woelfel said.

Manufacturers are rolling out fully autonomous tractor models, including John Deere's debut at CES 2022, which the company says is ready for large-scale production and would be available to farmers later this year. Case IH developed an autonomous concept vehicle in 2016, and other manufacturers are developing several models of autonomous equipment, Farm Equipment reported.

"Autonomous and driver-optional machinery provides a multitude of benefits for the agriculture industry, including improved air quality, sustainability and food quality. One of the most tangible and significant benefits, however, is improved farm worker safety," Monarch CEO Praveen Penmetsa wrote in the petition.

Monarch's autonomous tractors operate under a temporary variance, and Chief of Staff Jake Winters reported the tractors logged more than 1,300 operating hours during two years of use without accidents, injuries or close calls.

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