Who’s Minding the Store?
How following OSHA regulations can help prevent explosions
For decades the grain handling industry has struggled with the catastrophic effects of dust explosions at facilities throughout the United States. However, the industry has made tremendous strides to make the workplace safer upon the harsh backdrop that the industry faced as of the 1970s. Chart 1, issued by the United States Department of Labor (DOL) as of 2011, establishes how far the industry has come in the past 35 years.
The stark reality that forced the grain handling industry to seriously address these catastrophic events can be traced back to December of 1977 when five separate elevator explosions occurred in that month alone, resulting in 59 individuals' deaths and injury to 48 additional workers.
Even prior to that time, the DOL recognized the need to examine this issue and already had begun gathering and evaluating information on dust explosions. In order to understand and address the reasons as to why these dust explosions were occurring, the USDA and the DOL endorsed the creation the Panel on the Causes and Prevention of Grain Elevator and Mill Explosions. Simultaneously, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted its own investigation to examine the various causes of grain dust explosions.
Out of those studies, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a proposed standard in 1984 to address issues such as preventive maintenance, housekeeping, and the prevention of explosions by attempting to control dust accumulations and ignition sources. Then, in March of 1988, OSHA issued its standard, 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 1910.272, commonly referred to in the industry as the “Grain Handling Standard.”1
As the explosion statistics chart clearly establishes, the industry has made tremendous strides in preventing dust explosions. Unfortunately, when even one dust explosion event occurs, the damage and/or devastation may result in severe injuries and/or loss of lives as was evidenced in the tragic event which occurred at a grain facility in Atchison, KS in October of 2011.
This article outlines three steps that can be taken by grain handling facilities to prevent a dust explosion:
- Proper housekeeping of the facility
- Proper maintenance of equipment
- Proper training of elevator personnel to ensure that employees are performing their jobs with an eye toward safety and dust explosion prevention
Elements of a dust explosion
A dust explosion can occur if the following five elements are met2:
- Grain dust must be present
- An ignition source must be present
- Oxygen must be present in a concentration to sustain rapid combustion
- The grain dust must be well mixed with the oxygen at a concentration above the lower explosive limit
- Ignition must occur in an enclosed space
If the dust or the ignition source is removed, obviously the explosion cannot occur, which is why there is such a strong emphasis for proper housekeeping (removal of dust) and proper maintenance of equipment (elimination of a potential ignition source) by OSHA, all as outlined in the Grain Handling Standard.
When a dust explosion occurs, there is a significant likelihood of a lawsuit or lawsuits being initiated by: (1) entities attempting to recover for property damage or economic losses, or (2) by individuals who have been injured, or (3) families who have lost a loved one.
In my involvement in these suits, I have made the following observations regarding poor housekeeping measures at facilities:
- Boot pits full of dust, particularly in older facilities
- Dust blown down into pit areas and not properly or timely removed
- Dust leaking from overhead ducting
- Conveying equipment with layers of dust laying on top of the equipment
- Galleries ignored from regular housekeeping measures
Additionally, I have made the following observations regarding examples of poor preventive maintenance measures involving equipment:
- Grooves worn into head pulley covers indicating an improperly aligned belt
- Bearings not consistently greased or inspected
- Rub sensors on elevator legs worn away/improper belt alignment
- Sensor wires on hazard monitoring equipment not properly attached or inspected, resulting in alarms not functioning properly
Click here for a photo gallery with examples of the observations metioned.
Housekeeping and preventive maintenance
To address these issues and to assist facilities in ensuring that proper housekeeping and preventive maintenance is being accomplished, the OSHA Grain Handling Standard provides clear guidance to the grain handling industry. Below are pertinent provisions of the standard concerning housekeeping:
“The employer shall develop and implement a written housekeeping program that establishes the frequency and methods determined best to reduce accumulations of fugitive grain dust on ledges, floors, equipment and other exposed surfaces.”3
“The employer shall immediately remove any fugitive grain dust accumulations whenever the accumulations exceed 1/8 inch (.32 cm) at priority housekeeping areas pursuant to the housekeeping program …”
Priority housekeeping areas shall include at least the following:
- Floor areas within 35 feet of inside bucket elevators
- Floors of enclosed areas containing grinding equipment
- Floors of enclosed areas containing grain dryers located inside facility4
The requirements of the Grain Handling Standard are clear: grain handling facilities must develop a written housekeeping plan as outlined above and then consistently adhere to it.
And that’s the problem. Many facilities simply do not have a written housekeeping plan in place, and as a result, housekeeping is done when an employee “gets around to it.” Still, others actually have the written housekeeping plan in place and then fail to follow it — many times because management has not made it a priority.
OSHA also provides clear guidance regarding the critical safety measure of preventive maintenance and inspection of equipment. The following are pertinent provisions of the Grain Handling Standard regarding preventive maintenance:
(1) The employer shall implement written preventive maintenance procedures consisting of:
(i) regularly scheduled inspections of at least the mechanical and safety control equipment associated with:
- Grain stream processing equipment
- Bucket elevators
- Grain dryers
- Dust collection equipment
- Safety/monitoring equipment
(ii) Lubrication and other appropriate maintenance in accordance with manufacturer’s recommendations, or as determined necessary by prior operating records.5
Additionally, “A certification record shall be maintained of each inspection containing the date of the inspection, the name of the person who performed the inspection and the equipment specified.6”
The requirements of the Grain Handling Standard regarding preventive maintenance programs are also clear. Grain handling facilities must develop a written maintenance and inspection program and then adhere to it.
The housekeeping programs and preventive maintenance plans that simply take up space in a file drawer will do nothing to assist a facility in preventing a catastrophic event through good housekeeping and preventive maintenance procedures.
These plans must be in place and then consistently followed. Quite frankly, it all starts with the attitude of management. If management demands compliance with proper housekeeping and maintenance procedures, it will happen. If management doesn’t make these procedures a priority, the programs will “go by the wayside.”
Employee training and management validation
Finally, all of these recommendations regarding proper housekeeping and maintenance can only be accomplished through regular and comprehensive employee training. As we are all aware, there are only so many hours in a day, and as such, the very real danger is that new employees at a grain facility — or current employees taking on a different role — may not be receiving adequate job training.
OSHA addresses employee training in the Grain Handling Standard as follows:
The employer shall provide training to employees at least annually and when changes in job assignment will expose them to new hazards. Employees … shall be trained in at least the following:
- Safety precautions associated with facility
- Recognition and preventive measures for hazards related to dust accumulations
- Common ignition sources
- Specific procedures and safety practices applicable to their job tasks for … housekeeping procedures, hot work procedures, preventive maintenance procedures.7
Step back and examine these OSHA requirements regarding employee training and then compare them to the training your facility is currently providing to your employees.
Bear in mind, not following the requirements listed above can have serious consequences. The facility itself may suffer extensive property damage and loss of business income due to the damage. And in those events, the potential for serious personal injury or loss of life is very real. Finally, a grain facility stands to be subjected to significant fines and penalties if OSHA determines that the facility was not adhering to the Grain Handling Standard.
Click here for pictures of the devastating consequences of an explosion.
Catastrophic events can occur even at the best-run grain facilities. However, the odds of preventing a dust explosion at your facility are enhanced if management takes the following steps:
- Ensure written policies are in place for housekeeping procedures and preventive maintenance of equipment
- Demand compliance with the policies by regularly reviewing housekeeping and maintenance log sheets
- Develop and implement an employee training program for at least the following:
- Recognition and preventive measures for hazards related to dust accumulations
- Common ignition sources
- Specific procedures and safety practices applicable to job tasks for housekeeping and preventive maintenance procedures
The implementation of these procedures and compliance with the provisions of the Grain Handling Standard are proactive steps to making your facility a safe and productive work environment.
The author, Mark Aljets, is a member of the Litigation Department of the Nyemaster Goode PC. Law Firm in Des Moines, IA. Mr. Aljets practices in the areas of Product Liability Defense, Construction Defect/Commercial Litigation and Complex Tort Defense Work. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (515) 283-3124.
 “Grain Dust Explosions – An Unsolved Problem,” Report No. HRD-79-1 (Gov’t Accounting Office, March 21, 1979)
 29 C.F.R. § 1910.272.
 29 CFR 1910.272(j)(l)
 29 CFR 1910.272(j)(2)(i)(ii)
 29 CFR 1910.272(m)(1)(i)(ii)
 29 CFR 1910.272(m)(3)(i)(ii)
  29 CFR 1910.272(e)
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