more than grain danger 530

More than a grain of danger

As grain-related injuries and deaths increase, OSHA cracks down

May 1, 2011

Deaths and injuries from grain entrapments are on the rise and, as a result, OSHA is warning grain facility owners and operators to take appropriate precautions – or face steep consequences.

In 2010, 51 grain entrapments were documented – the highest number ever reported, according to Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program in West Lafayette, IN. The program has documented grain entrapment cases since 1978, with data going back to 1964. Seventy percent of all documented entrapments occur on farms exempt from OSHA’s grain handling facilities standard (1910.272).

In recent years, the number of deaths and injuries from these grain entrapments also has increased – 26 fatal and 25 nonfatal entrapments occurred last year. In 2006, there were only 12 each.

However, Purdue researchers stressed that these figures do not paint a complete picture. In a Feb. 9 summary on 2010 grain entrapments, the researchers noted that a nationwide comprehensive reporting system does not exist for grain entrapments, and some victims and employers may be reluctant to report such incidents when a public report was not made. Using figures from Indiana’s surveillance program, which researchers called “aggressive,” Purdue estimated the total number of nationwide grain entrapment cases could be as much as 30 percent higher.

Enforcement and outreach

OSHA has stepped up its enforcement of grain entrapment hazards. In the past year, the agency has issued more than $4 million in fines to only five companies for alleged safety violations stemming from incidents that killed five workers and injured two.

In an Aug. 4 letter sent to grain storage facility operators, OSHA administrator David Michaels highlighted the most recent tragedy (at the time). A 14- and 19-year-old were killed at an Illinois grain elevator while “walking down the corn,” a process that entails walking on top of grain to make it flow while machinery that evacuates the grain is running. The teen workers were engulfed and suffocated.

In the letter, Michaels provided a list of safety measures for operators to implement to limit injuries and deaths – including prohibiting walking down grain. Michaels also warned of OSHA penalties for violations and – in the event of an employee death – possible criminal prosecution by the Department of Justice.

In August, OSHA’s Region 5 launched a Local Emphasis Program on grain-related hazards.

According to the Purdue report, more than half of all documented grain entrapments occurred in that region, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. At press time, OSHA data showed the LEP had resulted in 61 inspections and 209 citations.

“Grain elevator owners and operators must implement well-known safety practices to prevent workers from being hurt or killed in a grain bin,” Michaels said in a March 16 press release announcing $465,500 in penalties against an Ohio-based grain operator related to the death of a 20-year-old worker.

But many farms are exempt from OSHA regulations. According to Purdue, 69 percent of entrapments in 2010 occurred on exempt farms; the rest occurred at commercial facilities that must comply with OSHA regulations. The industry has sought to educate farmers on proper safety procedures. In February, the National Grain and Feed Association and the National Corn Growers Association released a video promoting grain bin safety awareness on farms.

“Statistics show that 92 percent of victims who become fully engulfed – which can happen in a matter of seconds – do not survive,” NGFA President Kendell Keith said in a press release announcing the video. “People need to become more aware of the hazards.”

Employer requirements

When workers enter storage bins, OSHA has several requirements that must be followed, including:

  • Lockout/tagout to ensure grain is not emptied or moved into or out of the bin while workers are inside.
  • Prohibit “walking down” grain.
  • Prohibit entry onto or below a “bridging” condition.
  • Employees should use a body harness with a lifeline or a boatswain’s chair whenever they walk or stand on stored grain.
  • Establish an observer to provide assistance in rescue operations, and ensure communications between the observer and worker in the bin are maintained.
  • Before entering a bin, test the air inside for oxygen content and the presence of hazardous gases.

Source: OSHA

Major penalties

In recent months, OSHA has issued major penalties to various grain facility operators for alleged violations related to storage bin hazards.

  • $1.6 million – The South Dakota Wheat Growers Association of Aberdeen, SD, was fined in the aftermath of a worker’s Dec. 22, 2009, engulfment and suffocation. Five other workers were at risk of being engulfed in the rescue attempt.
  • $1.6 million – Tempel Grain Elevators LLP was fined for the May 29, 2009, engulfment and suffocation of a teen worker at the company’s Haswell, CO, facility.
  • $729,000 – The August 2010 corn engulfment of a 49-year-old worker at Hillsdale Elevator Co.’s Geneseo, IL, facility led to additional violations found at its Annawan, IL, facility.
  • $721,000 – At Cooperative Plus Inc.’s facility in Burlington, WI, a worker was buried up to his chest in frozen soybeans in February 2010. He was rescued four hours later.
  • $550,000 – Two teen workers died and a 20-year-old employee was seriously injured while “walking down the corn” at Haasbach LLC’s Mount Carroll, IL, facility in July 2010.
  • $465,500 – A 20-year-old worker was caught in a discharge auger while cleaning out a grain bin at Gavilon Grain LLC’s Morral, OH, facility in September 2010. The death prompted inspections and fines at two other Gavilon facilities in Ohio.

Source: OSHA