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Accidents put grain elevator safety in focus

A grain dust explosion started a fire in August 2008 at the West Central Ag elevator in Ulen, Minn., as seen here from one mile west of the elevator. Forum file photo

Recent high-profile accidents have put a regulatory spotlight on grain elevators.

There have been 89 fatalities reported to OSHA involving grain elevators nationwide since 2009, including 40 engulfments, 32 falls and seven dust explosions - all of which have triggered increased concern by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But for grain dealers, the concerns go beyond safety. They worry what increased regulations could mean for them financially and logistically. The topic was discussed at a recent North Dakota Grain Dealers Association meeting in Fargo.

Effective Oct. 1, 2010, OSHA imposed a new penalty structure that largely doubles penalties, which had been unchanged for about 40 years. The agency also extended the timeframe under which the penalties could be considered a repeat penalty.

Further, the agency changed its schedule for offering "adjustments" to the penalties based on size. Small elevators, with one to 25 employees, for example,used to get a 60 percent discount and now are eligible for a 40 percent discount.

Stu Letcher, the NDGDA safety and health director, also has some concerns about regulations surrounding so-called "sweep augers," used regularly to clean out the bottoms of grain bins and elevators, and on farms.

An insurance agency representative started inquiring with OSHA about sweep augers in 2008, and on Dec. 24, 2009, an agency official responded that elevator employees "cannot be in the bin where there is an unguarded sweep auger, where an employee could be exposed" to the auger.

Letcher says OSHA hasn't told elevators how they can safely operate with sweep augers and that various OSHA regional offices are interpreting the rules differently. Until the issue is resolved, probably in early 2011, Letcher advises elevators to have "a system in place that you're comfortable with."

The only alternative is shovels, hand brooms and vacuums, which isn't always practical with the volumes involved, he said.

Mike Maslowski, compliance assistance officer for OSHA, based in Bismarck, says he's become aware of a new model of automated bin sweep, manufactured in South Dakota, which does not operate with a screw auger and may be approved to work in bins where people are working.

There are also regulatory issues surrounding bin entry that stand to impact grain dealers. In particular, if anyone dies in a grain storage facility in a bin-entry issue, and that incident is related to workers entering storage bins, OSHA will go beyond civil penalties and consider referring the incident to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. Several North Dakota firms have received letters on the topic.

Letcher says it is not only OSHA, but also the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, that have stepped up interest in the industry.