Suffocation in Grain Bin Leads to $1.6M Penalty

"The company's intentional disregard for its safety and health responsibilities put its workers at risk, and more egregiously, led to an unnecessary loss of life,” said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

OSHA has fined the South Dakota Wheat Growers Association of Aberdeen, S.D., more than $1.6 million following the Dec. 22, 2009, death of a worker at the company's McLaughlin, S.D., grain handling operation. The worker suffocated after being engulfed by grain in one of the facility's bins. OSHA's investigation found that five additional workers also were at risk of being engulfed when they were sent into the bin to dig the victim out.

"The South Dakota Wheat Growers Association ignored long-established standards addressing safety in grain handling operations," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "The company's intentional disregard for its safety and health responsibilities put its workers at risk, and more egregiously, led to an unnecessary loss of life. Worker safety must be a top priority."

Following its investigation, OSHA proposed $1,610,000 in fines for 23 alleged willful violations of the grain handling and confined space standards, including: failing to prohibit workers from walking on top of clumped grain; failing to prohibit entry into the grain bins where the buildup of grain existed; failing to shut off and lock out equipment to prevent grain from moving through the bin while workers were inside; failing to equip workers with grain engulfment protection; failing to provide observers equipped to provide assistance; failing to train workers; failing to issue permits to control entry into grain bins; failing to test the atmosphere; a lack of rescue equipment; and failing to implement an emergency action plan prior to entry. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health.

"We know that safety precautions could have prevented this tragedy," said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. "The dangers of grain bin entry are well known in the industry, yet the South Dakota Wheat Growers Association chose to ignore these hazards."

OSHA noted that the death in South Dakota follows a similar May 2009 death of a 17-year old employee of Tempel Grain LLP in Haswell, Colo. That worker also suffocated after being engulfed by grain. OSHA issued $1,592,500 in fines for 22 alleged willful and 13 alleged serious violations in that case.

OSHA has implemented a regional emphasis inspection program in the grain handling industry to address the serious hazards associated with grain bins and confined spaces, and operators and industry associations have been sent letters announcing the program. OSHA's area offices covering Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota are also providing assistance to help grain storage facilities comply with safety standards, the agency said.

The South Dakota Wheat Growers Association has 15 business days from receipt of all OSHA citations to pay the penalties, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

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