The main point of contention: the distinction between guarded vs. unguarded bin sweeps. By industry standards, sweep augers with a guard on the top and the back of the auger are considered guarded; however, OSHA’s message can be “interpreted” differently from one regional office to the next. Some OSHA inspectors feel the front of the auger should be guarded as well; however, such adaptations would hinder the proper functioning of the system.
“Most sweeps are designed so the leading edge of the auger becomes an agitator,” explains Greg Ver Steeg, vice president of marketing, Sudenga Industries. “If you restrict the contact of the auger to the grain pile with a front shield, you would entirely hinder the functionality of the equipment.”
The question that begs to be answered: What options does the industry have to do to make this process safer, and why isn’t the industry allowed the opportunity to come up with realistic solutions?
“[OSHA’s] intent is well off, but the agency leaves much to be desired from an equipment manufacturer’s and an operator’s standpoint — specifically as it relates to the need to guard sweeps,” Zink says. “As a manufacturer, if we were to guard the sweep, what does that mean?”
NGFA has met with OSHA for clarification. Jess McCluer, NGFA’s director of regulatory affairs, explains: “We’ve made our argument: there’s a very low injury incident rate for this type of equipment; the augers will not operate properly if they are completely covered — the sooner the agency clarifies what it wants the better.”
Uncertainty steers action
While the industry waits for clarification, the Letter of Interpretation appears to prevail in the mind of some inspectors; and some OSHA officials have been using it to issue citations for willful violations.
According to McCluer, until — or unless — the letter is modified, it supersedes previous documents and creates uncertainty. To compound the issue, each region, area office and State Plan state can and has been interpreting the letter differently.
“This is a very grey issue,” says McCluer. “There are no definitive answers available. I can’t tell you if it’s guarded or unguarded because it can differ from place to place; it all depends on how the agency’s regional and area offices want to interpret it.”
For example, should an OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officer find an elevator operator watching an energized sweep auger from a doorway in a 105-foot-diameter bin — with the sweep on the opposite side of the entry point — the facility could be fined for a willful violation.
Meanwhile, the industry is waiting for the results of 2010 citation challenges to determine its next legal and/or political actions.
“If you are issued a sweep auger citation and settle the claim, you may set the precedent which really could impact the industry adversely,” McCluer says. “In effect, the fine paid represents an admission that the facility won’t operate energized equipment in the bin again. As a result, you could be setting yourself up for repeat violations.”
McCluer suggests that if a facility is issued a citation based on the Letter of Interpretation, it should consult competent legal counsel to consider if contesting the citation is an option.
“With the emphasis programs regarding inspections, the industry is already on the radar,” McCluer says. “OSHA is going to be coming out… It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. The main thing is to be prepared to explain to OSHA why you have or have not made changes to your current policy.”
What can elevators do?
The best advice industry leaders can offer at this stage is for grain handlers to review and analyze the Letter of Interpretation, and make changes to sweep auger operation processes as they see fit. If OSHA should come knocking, it is in the best interest of the facility to seek equipment alternatives and alternative safety processes and better business management. Here is a list of proactive solutions elevators may wish to consider:
1. Control conditions in the bin
Elevators must also consider the root cause of the complications that impact the performance of the auger: the condition of the grain and the condition of the bin floor.
“As bin sizes grow, it is even more important to pay attention to these things because everything is heightened with more floor space covered by more grain,” Ver Steeg notes. “Growing pains are to be expected, but more attention should be paid to making sure the bin is in good shape before putting grain in it.”