Recently, OSHA put grain handling operators “on notice” that it intends to “aggressively pursue” workplace safety violations in the grain handling and storage industries.
On Aug. 4, 2010, OSHA Administrator David Michaels sent a letter to more than 3,000 grain handling and storage operators warning them that OSHA “will not tolerate” noncompliance with workplace safety standards. A copy of this letter is available at http://www.osha.gov/asst-sec/Grain_letter.html. In a related press conference, Michaels claimed to be “appalled” at the “outrageously reckless behavior” of some grain storage operators, particularly with respect to allowing workers to enter grain storage facilities without proper equipment, storage and training.
Evidently, this warning was precipitated by the recent suffocation deaths of two teenagers in a grain bin in Illinois. These deaths came on the heels of a series of similar accidents, each of which resulted in a large penalty citation from OSHA:
- In November 2009, OSHA fined a Colorado grain elevator more than $1.5 million following the death of a teenage worker engulfed by grain;
- In May 2010, OSHA fined a South Dakota wheat cooperative more than $1.6 million following the death of a worker engulfed by grain; and
- • In August 2010, OSHA fined a Wisconsin grain cooperative $721,000 after a worker was buried up to his chest in frozen soybeans for four hours.
In the warning letter, Michaels specifically directs employers to take the following precautions when workers enter grain storage bins:
- Turn off and lock out all powered equipment associated with the bin, including augers used to help move the grain, so that the grain is not being emptied or moving out or into the bin. Standing on moving grain is deadly; the grain acts like ‘quicksand’ and can bury a worker in seconds. Moving grain out of a bin while a worker is in the bin creates a suction that can pull the workers into the grain in seconds.
- Prohibit walking down grain and similar practices where an employee walks on grain to make it flow.
- Provide all employees a body harness with a lifeline, or a boatswains chair, and ensure that it is secured prior to the employee entering the bin.
- Provide an observer stationed outside the bin or silo being entered by an employee. Ensure the observer is equipped to provide assistance and that their only task is to continuously track the employee in the bin.
- Prohibit workers from entry into bins or silos underneath a bridging condition, or where a build-up of grain products on the sides could fall and bury them.
- Test 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.
- Ensure a permit is issued for each instance a worker enters a bin or silo, certifying that the precautions listed above have been implemented.
OSHA also indicates an intention to step up criminal enforcement and inspections. In his letter, Michaels cautions that if an employee dies in a grain storage facility, OSHA may refer the incident to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution under the criminal provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Michaels has also indicated that OSHA intends to initiate inspection programs targeting grain facilities in the Midwest and Great Plains states. In the face of this stepped up enforcement, it is important for grain facilities to be aware of the OSHA standards applicable in the industry.
While Michaels’ letter focuses on worker safety while in grain storage bins, many other workplace safety requirements apply to grain handling facilities as well (and will likely also be subject to increased scrutiny). Some of these applicable requirements are discussed briefly below.
Preventative maintenance and inspection
All mechanical and electrical equipment must be kept in proper operating condition. The employer must annually inspect the mechanical and safety control equipment associated with dryers, grain stream processing equipment, dust collection equipment (including filter collectors) and bucket elevators.