November 5, 2013

OSHA aims to prevent ‘needless deaths’

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Firefighters practice placing a rescue tube during grain bin rescue training at the Danville Bunge facility, Sept. 17, 2013.

Don McMasters/For The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Firefighters practice placing a rescue tube during grain bin rescue training at the Danville Bunge facility, Sept. 17, 2013.

The deadliest year for grain-bin workers on record was 2010, when at least 26 workers died throughout the country, according to grain-bin entrapment data from Purdue University. There were more than 50 total incidents that year.

Illinois had more deaths than any other state that year. Six people died while working in grain bins on smaller-sized farms, and four people died while working in grain bins at commercial elevator companies.

The frequency of accidents was so alarming that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s assistant secretary of labor David Michaels sent a letter to thousands of grain storage facility operators throughout the United States.

It called for increased awareness to “prevent these needless deaths.”

“All employers, and especially those in high hazard industries such as the grain industry, must recognize as well as prevent workplace hazards,” said Michaels in the letter. “As an employer, you must be vigilant and always follow the long established, common sense safety practices that will prevent these tragedies.”

Those common sense safety practices include:

– Providing all employees a body harness with a lifeline, or a boatswain’s chair, and ensuring that it is secured prior to the employee entering the bin.

– Testing the air within a bin or silo prior to entry for the presence of combustible and toxic gases, and to determine if there is sufficient oxygen.

– Providing an observer stationed outside the bin or silo being entered by an employee.

– Turning off and locking out all powered equipment associated with the bin, including augers used to help move the grain, so that the grain is not moving out or into the bin while workers are inside.

Michaels concluded the 2010 letter by issuing a stern warning to storage facility operators, saying OSHA will no longer tolerate non-compliance with grain handling facilities standards.

“OSHA has investigated several cases involving worker entry into grain storage bins where we have found that the employer was aware of the hazards and of OSHA’s standards, but failed to train or protect the workers entering the bin,” said Michaels. “OSHA has aggressively pursued these cases and we will continue to use our enforcement authority to the fullest extent possible.”

On Oct. 24, OSHA cited United Ethanol LLC in Wisconsin for more than a dozen health and safety violations, which were in response to an April accident when a worker was engulfed in a 140,000-bushel corn storage bin and died.

The worker was trying to unclog the grain exit chute when grain started to flow and he became trapped, according to an OSHA news release on the accident.

The administration proposed a $140,000 fine.

“This was a terrible, preventable tragedy that underscores the importance of safety compliance,” said Kim Stille, OSHA’s area director in Madison, Wis., in the release.

In August, OSHA cited Greg Sikes Farm LLC in Georgia for seven violations after a worker was trapped inside a grain bin while trying to clear soybeans from a jammed machine part.

The administration proposed more than $127,000 in fines, according to the accident’s OSHA news release.

In the past, records show that fines have been even more expensive.

In 2009, OSHA fined Tempel Grain Elevators LLP in Colorado more than $1.5 million following the death of a teenage worker who suffocated in a grain bin.

In 2010, OSHA fined the South Dakota Wheat Growers Association of Aberdeen in South Dakota more than $1.6 million following the death of yet another worker engulfed by grain.

However, OSHA protocol gives offenders 15 business days from notice of the citations and proposed penalties to contest the fines before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Then, OSHA may decrease the amount of initial fines. According to an NPR report and Center for Public Integrity analysis of 179 incidents, OSHA cuts about 60 percent of the fines it issues.

Produced by The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent, nonprofit newsroom covering agribusiness and related issues. Visit www.investigatemidwest.org