After nearly five years of back-and-forth between the grain industry and OSHA over its fluctuating sweep auger policy, a recent agency memo has brought some degree of closure to the issue.
The controversy was sparked in 2008 when an insurance agent wrote to OSHA regarding its policies on whether employees could remove their harnesses and lifeline inside a bin if there were no engulfment hazards present, and if employees could operate sweep augers if the sump was not protected by grating. OSHA’s detailed response cited the Grain Handling Standard (1910.272 (g) (1) (ii), and addressed the sweep auger component by saying it did not intend “a prohibition against employees entering grain storage structures while machinery is running.” But it went on to state that “employees may enter [grain bins] while machinery is running if the employer can demonstrate that appropriate protection has been provided to prevent employees from being exposed to the hazards/dangers of the moving machinery.”
The response noted the “obvious example” of effective employee protection from hazards through machine guarding, which prompted the insurance agent to follow up with an inquiry about the use of unguarded sweep augers with employees inside the bin. What followed was OSHA’s infamous series of Letters of Interpretation, stating that unless the employer eliminates all hazards presented by an energized (running) unguarded sweep auger, it was in violation of the Grain Handling Standard.
The problem with this stance is that guarding a sweep auger on all sides, including the front, would render the equipment useless. Sweep augers are used to empty grain from a bin by pulling contents from the outermost area into the middle, where it funnels into a pump and exits underneath the bin onto a conveying system. Sweep augers travel at very low speeds and operation commonly requires a few workers to stay inside the bin to adjust its movement and ensure all the grain reaches the central discharge.
Given that the front of a sweep auger must contact the commodity in order to work properly, many in the grain handling industry were left wondering how they could continue using their equipment without violating OSHA’s policy.
Both national and state grain associations provided OSHA with feedback over the next few years, expressing the industry’s confusion and frustration over the misguided policy; but in the meantime, OSHA ramped up grain facility inspections and the enforcement of its interpretation letter.
Then, in January 2013, the grain industry reached a milestone victory. A major grain handler in Illinois challenged OSHA after the company was penalized for allowing workers inside their grain bins with energized sweep augers. The company hired Epstein Becker & Green’s national OSHA Practice Group, who proved that a combination of administrative and engineering controls could be used on sweep augers to ensure that no one ever enters the zone of danger while the equipment is operating. As a result, OSHA withdrew all citations and penalties, and the law firm, along with area and regional OSHA directors and administrators, worked together to formulate the “Ten Sweep Auger Safety Principles.”
- No employee shall enter a grain bin without a bin entry permit, which confirms there are no engulfment and/or atmospheric hazards present.
- The subfloor auger and the grain entry points must be de-energized and locked out before entering the bin to set up or dig out the sweep auger.
- The grate/guard on the subfloor auger must be in place and secured before operating the sweep auger.
- Employees operating the sweep auger cannot walk on the grain if the depth of the grain presents engulfment hazard.
- The only portion of the sweep auger allowed to be unguarded is the point of operation.
- A rescue-trained and equipped observer must always be positioned outside the storage bin to monitor the activities inside.
- The employer must utilize engineering controls within the grain bin to prevent workers from coming into contact with the energized sweep auger. Acceptable engineering controls include: