OSHA Puts Grain Handling Operators on Notice; Fines Wisconsin Grain Cooperative $721,000

Aug. 4, 2010
On Aug. 4, OSHA Administrator David Michaels announced that the agency will send letters to approximately 3,300 employers involved in grain handling and storage to warn them not to allow workers to enter grain storage facilities without proper equipment, precautions and training. This move comes on the heels of the agency issuing $721,000 in fines against a Wisconsin grain cooperative after a worker was engulfed in frozen soybeans.

“OSHA is putting this industry on notice that employers have the legal obligation to protect and train their workers,” Michaels said during an Aug. 4 telephone press conference. “We will not tolerate noncompliance with our Grain Handling Facilities Standard, and we will take violations of these standards very seriously.”

The letters will go to operations and industries that use grain elevators, feed mills, flour mills and corn mills.

“I am appalled at the outrageously reckless behavior of some operators of grain storage facilities,” Michaels said. “OSHA has investigated several cases involving worker entry into grain storage bins or elevators where we have found that the employer was aware of the hazard and OSHA standards but has failed to train or protect their workers. OSHA has aggressively pursued these cases and will continue to use our enforcement authority to the fullest extent possible.”

Cooperative Plus Fined $721,000

Also on Aug. 4, OSHA proposed fines of $721,000 against Cooperative Plus Inc. in Burlington, Wis., for violations of federal workplace safety standards. OSHA alleges that this employer, a farmer-owned cooperative, exposed workers to the risk of being engulfed and suffocated in grain storage bins without proper equipment and procedures. In a near tragedy that occurred Feb. 7, a worker was trapped in soybeans up to his chest in 25-degree weather. The worker was rescued after a 4-hour ordeal and suffered hypothermia.

According to Michaels, the bin’s auger was not locked out; the worker was not attached to a harness or other retrieval device; there were no observers stationed nearby; oxygen was not measured in the bin before entry; and no permit for safety procedures had been filled out before entry.

“In other words, this employer disregarded a long list of common sense, widely accepted safety practices,” Michaels said. “This was standard operating procedure at Cooperative Plus. Entering a grain bin without taking the proper safety precautions is like playing Russian roulette. Sending an employee into a grain bin without taking these precautions is against the law.”

OSHA has cited Cooperative Plus for 10 willful violations. Two per-instance willful violations are for failing to provide workers entering grain storage bins with body harnesses and lifelines and to provide an observer while other workers entered the grain bins. A citation has been issued for each bin entry OSHA documented in which the employer failed to observe these requirements. OSHA also has issued additional willful violations that address the company’s failing to ensure that safe procedures were implemented for entry into the bins; to prohibit workers from walking on the grain inside the bin; to provide rescue equipment for workers entering the bins; and to implement an emergency action plan.

In a statement sent to EHS Today, Cooperative Plus indicated that the company has not yet been able to consider these allegations in detail and therefore cannot comment on them at this time.

“But CPI has been and is a safety-conscious company, and we care deeply about our employees’ safety and health, on and off the job,” the statement added. “If we need to make changes to protect their safety and health in the workplace further, we will do so. But, to the extent OSHA’s citations are factually or legally without merit, we will fight them vigorously.”

The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and proposed penalties to comply or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

According to Michaels, OSHA has expanded its investigation into safety practices at other Cooperative Plus facilities located throughout southeast Wisconsin.

Protecting Workers

The citations against Cooperative Plus are being issued one week after a separate and especially tragic incident in a grain elevator in Illinois in which two teenage workers, a 14- and a 19-year-old, were killed and a 20-year-old was hospitalized after being similarly engulfed in grain. In a third case last year, a South Dakota Wheat Growers Association worker was killed after being engulfed by grain in a wheat handling facility. In May, OSHA issued a fine of more than $1.6 million against the South Dakota Wheat Growers Association.

OSHA conducted a lookback review of its Grain Handling Facilities Standard in 2003 and found the standard to be successful in informing employers in proper safety procedures.

“The standard is effective,” Michaels told EHS Today during the press conference. “The problem is there are grain source facility operators that are not following the standard, so we are pursuing them very aggressively.”

Approximately 1,900 of OSHA’s letters will go to establishments in federal OSHA states, and the remaining 1,400 letters will notify facilities in states with their own occupational safety and health state plans. In addition, the agency will launch inspection programs targeting grain facilities in the Midwest and Great Plains states, including Colorado, Wyoming, Illinois, Wisconsin. Nebraska, Missouri, Montana and South Dakota.

“We want to get to these facilities before workers die instead of afterwards,” Michaels said.

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