NSC 2017: Wheat Dust Allergy Leads to Worker Death

Oct. 2, 2017
A worker in his 30s died after occupational exposure to wheat.

When introducing a new chemical or raw material into the work environment, a risk assessment must be completed to eliminate or reduce workers’ exposure.

At the National Safety Congress in Indianapolis, OSHA investigators presented some of their most interesting cases. For Allen Grisar, Region V OSHA compliance officer, one of the most unexpected cases he has come across happened at a company involved in grain processing for the malting industry.

In September 2014, a worker, who had been with the company for four years, developed asthma and subsequently died from a severe asthma attack at the facility. His job role involved transferring grains to malt practices.

The company had introduced wheat and barley into its malting operations just months prior to the incident. Just four months before his death, the worker had a severe asthma attack on the clock, which was treated at work.

 “Company did not conduct an incident investigation or send worker for further evaluation after May 2014,” Grisar told attendees.

The OSHA investigation discovered many issues that the led to the fatality. First, preplacement medical exam were not provided to contract clinicians conducting respiratory clearance examinations, he said.

Employees stated in interviews that if they needed to go in the area for a short period of time that they did not wear protection.

“The root problem is there was an incomplete hazard evaluation to assess exposure to grain dusts and exposure to assess of new material into process operations,” Grisar indicated.

Because the company did not assess the hazard of introducing wheat and barley into malting operations, the worker developed acute sensitization to the wheat and succumbed to the condition.

In addition, there was no program addressing the hazards of grain dusts. While workers received annual respiratory clearance exams, either the worker did not identify or nor did the clinicians examination him address his asthmatic condition in those exams.

Grisar identified some solutions that were provided to the company to prevent further incidents from happening:

  • Identify potential exposure pathways to reduce or eliminate exposures to grain dust or other allergens
  • Institute potential exposure pathways to reduce or eliminate exposures
  • Institute medical surveillance program for all workers potentially exposed to grain dust
  • Provide appropriate PPE for identified exposures as well as engineering and administrative controls

After the investigation, OSHA cited the company for numerous violations related to the respiratory hazards for which the workers were exposed.

In addition, while respiratory protection was provided, they did not reevaluate or identify hazards that would be created. Because there was a change in work area conditions or degree of worker exposure, the company should have evaluated the effectiveness of the respirator, which the worker was wearing, Grisar said.

Along with facial hair allowing to be between the sealing surface and the face leading to improper fitting, the respirators provided also were not stored correctly. Lastly, there was no hazard alert letter outlining recommended methods to identify and mitigate occupational exposure to grain dusts.

“Be aware of what comes into the workplace,” Grisar said. “Especially when you introduce something in, you need to manage that change….Even though it may seem very minor, it could lead to a fatality in the workplace.”

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