US grain handler faces fines for exposing workers to engulfment risks

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/safakOguz
© iStock/safakOguz
OSHA found that a grain and feed handling cooperative in Iowa failed to properly train employees to enter grain bins or provide safety harnesses in a site inspection after a fatality.

The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) published a citation​ on Monday (19 March) after an inspection of a grain and feed facility of East Central Iowa Cooperative noted safety regulation violations.  One of its employees died from a grain engulfment incident at the facility in mid-2017.

Iowa currently has a local emphasis program​ in place regarding grain-handling establishments, said Jens Nissen, Iowa Occupational Safety and Health administrator. The  program was designed to limit injury, illness and death rates by promoting education, health and safety programs.

“People enter grain bins and die,”​ he told us. “There are far too many people who die in engulfment situations and other types of instances that occur at grain facilities.”

Mitigation process

East Central Iowa Cooperative initially faced a $306,500 fine from OSHA regarding 11 reported violations, OSHA said. However, the cooperative asked for an informal conference with the agency as part of its response to the reported violations.

It is currently reported​to have eight violations and faces a reduced fine of $125,000, OSHA said. 

“People enter grain bins and die."

When a facility receives a notification of penalty or citation from the agency it has 15 days to contest all or a portion of the citations or to request an informal conference to address the violations reported, OSHA said. “After 15 working days have passed, there will be no further chance to challenge these allegations and penalties,” ​it added.

The cooperative did not respond to a request for comment.

Inspection details

In the initial report of safety violations found at the grain-handling facility several were considered to be serious or willful in nature, said OSHA.

These included that some procedures were not documented, developed or used as the cooperative did not have lockout specific procedures, the agency said. Employees were exposed to the risk of amputation or engulfment from equipment including drag conveyors, elevators, blowers, augers and other devices.

The facility did not use tags and locks to prevent the inadvertent movement or starting of equipment being services, repaired or adjusted, the agency said. And the inspection found that parts of a belt and pulley system were not properly guarded, which created the potential for possible amputation, the agency said.

OSHA also reported that employees were given special tasks, including bin entry, without training on how to prevent engulfment by feed grains or mechanical hazards, the agency said. “Employees made entry into grain bin #6 without full body harnesses, attached retrieval lines and an attendant,” ​it added.

“There was an open sump above an operating drag conveyor in this bin which contained approximately 21,000 bushels of soybeans,” ​the agency said. “There was a buildup of grain 10-12 feet in depth around portions of the interior edge of the bin. Employees were attempting to cause the buildup of grain to flow toward the open sump. This activity resulted in a fatality when an employee became engulfed in the flowing grain.”

The facility also reportedly failed to keep the proper records relating to preventative maintenance on some equipment, the agency said. A series of remote disconnects also were not clearly labeled.

Additional violations reported initially included that the cooperative did not use bin entry permits before allowing employees into grain bins, including a bin that held about 21,000 bushels of soybeans, the agency said. Those employees also were not wearing full-body harnesses or retrieval lines.

“There was a buildup of grain 10-12 feet in depth around portions of the interior edge of the bin,” ​said OSHA. “Employees were attempting to cause the buildup of grain to flow toward the open sump. This activity resulted in a fatality when an employee became engulfed in the flowing grain.”

Employers are supposed to ensure that employees entering grain storage spaces containing grain or grain products that could present an engulfment hazards are wearing a harness with lifeline or boatswain’s chair to prevent the employee from being submerged past the waist, unless it can be demonstrated that the safety equipment would be not feasible or presents a greater hazard, the agency said. At that point, the employer needs to provide alternative protection.  

The facility was also cited for failing to provide an observer outside of the grain storage container when employees entered the bin, the agency said. “Rescue operations were delayed because of the lack of an observer,” ​added OSHA.

“The employer did not provide equipment for rescue operations such as, but not limited to, coffer dam and/or a body harness with an attached retrieval line for employees prior to making entry into bin #6 which contained approximately 21,000 bushels of soybeans,”​ the agency reported. “A body harness and retrieval line was located inside the office at this location but not at the grain bin where entry was made.  Employer's coffer dam was located at an offsite location and not readily accessible.”

The facility also did not ensure that all equipment which could present a danger to employees was de-energized, “disconnected, locked-out and tagged, blocked-off or prevented from operating,”​ the agency said.

Nor did it prevent employees from entering a grain bin with a buildup of grain along the sides of the structure, said OSHA.

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