US: Wisconsin corn milling company faces $1.8m OSHA fine

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages
© GettyImages

Related tags: Occupational safety and health

Didion Milling Inc faces a proposed fine of $1,837,861 and has been issued 19 safety citations after a facility explosion killed five employees and injured 12.

The citations​ from the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) came after an investigation of the company’s milling facility in Cambria, Wisconsin, said​ ​the agency. An explosion at the facility, which produced feed and food products, prompted the probe.

The US safety watchdog reported the explosion might have been a result of the company’s failure to address accumulation of grain dust in the facility. Some equipment also may not have been properly maintained to prevent the possibility of sparks.  

“Didion Milling could have prevented this tragedy if it had addressed hazards that are well-known in this industry,” ​said Ken Nishiyama Atha, OSHA regional administrator. “Instead, their disregard for the law led to an explosion that claimed the lives of workers, and heartbreak for their families and the community.”

Of the citations issued to the company, five have been classified as “serious”​ and 14 as “willful". ​Didion also has been placed in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

Company response

In response to the citations from OSHA, the company issued a statement:

“Didion does not agree with the severity of the penalties levied against our family-owned business or the conclusions released by OSHA today. We are working with our legal counsel to determine how to address the findings from this federal agency.”

Didion said it is working with industry members and other agencies regarding the cause of the incident.

The company is planning to build a new corn milling facility. Its ethanol plant, which is operated by a subsidiary company and produces distillers grains, restarted production in August.

“The new mill will utilize the latest technology and industry best practices, creating one of the most efficient, effective and safe operational systems available.”

Citation details

The items included in the series of serious violations covered the presence of fire hazards relating to areas like an indoor fluid bed dryer, which did not have an automatic fire protection system, said OSHA.

“The employer did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that caused or were likely to cause death or serious physical harm in that employees were exposed to grain product fire hazards associated with an indoor fluid bed dryer processing dry corn products which was not equipped with a means of fire protection,” ​the agency said.

Other violations ranged from a lack of safety training for employees on potential ignition sources or housekeeping and cleaning procedures to the location of filter media dust collectors, as several were inside but did not have explosion protection, said OSHA. Didion, reportedly, also did not have preventive maintenance processes in place relating to some mechanical equipment or a way of eliminating “ferrous material”​ from the grain stream before it reached processing equipment.

The willful violations reported by the agency included that not all equipment exposed to combustible grain dust was “conductive, bonded and grounded;”​ the company did not provide or ensure that employees exposed to areas with the potential for flash fires used flame-resistant clothing; and there was no emergency action plan meeting necessary requirements, the agency said. There also was no implemented written housekeeping program established to address accumulation of fugitive grain dust in multiple locations.

“Compressed air was used to blow dust from ledges, walls, and other areas in grain handling facilities when machinery presenting an ignition source was not shut down, and when all other known potential ignition sources in the area were not removed or controlled,”​ the agency said.

Other violations, according to the OSHA report, included the company not employing regularly scheduled inspections for some of the mechanical and safety control equipment linked to the dryers, grain steam processing, bucket elevators or dust collection.  Didion also did not ensure that malfunctioning or low-performing dust collection systems were corrected in a timely manner, said the US watchdog.

The company has 15 days to respond to the citations, said OSHA. There are several options open to the company including paying the fine, scheduling an informal conference to discuss the issues raised with OSHA or formally contesting the citation and notification of penalty either, completely or in part.

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