Grain Handling Fatalities Up in 2016, Purdue Study Finds

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By Bruce Rolfsen

Grain silos continue to be hazardous places to work with the number of grain entrapment cases and fatalities increasing in 2016, according to Purdue University’s annual survey of grain handling accidents.

The numbers come out at the same time agriculture industry groups are expected to press the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to consider ending its regional emphasis programs targeting grain processing and storage operations.

At 29 entrapment incidents in 2016, there were about 21 percent more cases than the 24 incidents in 2015. Although the entrapment numbers were higher in 2016, the five-year average declined slightly, from 30.2 in 2015 to 29.4 in 2016, the report said.

Among the most serious cases, 18 people died from entrapment during 2016, up from 14 the previous year.

The recent high for entrapment cases and deaths was in 2010, when 31 people died and 59 incidents occurred, according to prior Purdue reports.

In addition to the entrapment cases, Purdue found for 2016 another 42 grain-related incidents leading to deaths of 22 people from such causes as entanglement with machinery, asphyxiation and falls.

Unreported Accidents

Purdue agriculture safety professor Bill Field noted the report numbers don’t account for all accidents because of the lack of a mandatory reporting requirement.

While OSHA is supposed to be notified of on-the-job fatalities at commercial grain handling facilities, the mandate doesn’t cover incidents in which workers weren’t hospitalized or accidents occurred at jobsites exempt from OSHA oversight, such as small farms.

OSHA’s grain handling rule (29 C.F.R. 1910.272) generally treats silos are confined spaces, requiring workers lowered into a silo to be tethered an escape system and to have an observer watching. The rule also says people shouldn’t enter a silo if machinery is running, such as augers, with the potential to snag a worker’s foot or arm.

Grain entrapment accidents often start when a worker enters a silo to knock down or loosen grain that stopped flowing smoothly. The grain may fall on top of the person or the worker might break through the surface and become engulfed.

Following the 2010 spike in deaths, OSHA initiated several regional emphasis programs, primarily covering Midwestern and Great Plains states, and has renewed them each year.

Expand Education

Since 2010, commercial operators have gotten the message that they need to comply and most have done so, attorney Eric Conn told Bloomberg BNA March 23. Conn, a partner at Conn Maciel Carey LLP in Washington, has represented silo operators and speaks often at grain industry gatherings.

Conn pointed out that most of the incidents reported by Purdue over several years occurred at small farms and other sites that aren’t covered by OSHA. Federal law exempts most farms with 10 or fewer employees from having to comply with agency rules.

A more effective safety program would stress educating farmers and other OSHA-exempt grain facility managers and workers, Conn said.

Commercial facilities could still be inspected if OSHA was responding to an injury report or employee complaint, Conn said.

When Conn raised the exemption issue with OSHA leaders at an American Bar Association forum in early March, the agency officials responded that any consideration of revising or ending emphasis program would have to wait until the Trump administration-appointed OSHA administrators were in place.

Although the emphasis programs continue, OSHA has scaled back grain-related inspections. For example, federal inspections of grain and bean wholesalers peaked in fiscal year 2012 with 252 inspections. In fiscal 2016, OSHA inspected 93 sites.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The Purdue report is available at http://src.bna.com/nhX.

Previous Purdue reports are available at http://src.bna.com/nlb.

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