New Chapter of OSHA Inspection Manual Covers Hazards of Booming Ethanol Industry

By Robert Iafolla

May 19 — In response to the massive expansion of domestic biofuel production, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration added a chapter on ethanol processing to its manual for health and safety inspectors.

Making ethanol out of corn and other organic feedstocks presents a mix of hazards common to grain handling and chemical processing, according to OSHA. Combustible dust, confined spaces and engulfment hazards arise from the former, for example, while the latter can introduce equipment ruptures, flammable liquids and other hazardous chemicals.

In addition, OSHA said the constant stream of trucks delivering corn and leaving with ethanol brings motor vehicle hazards.

OSHA’s technical manual provides its inspectors with information and guidance on hazards, workplaces, air sampling and other health and safety issues. It also provides the regulated community with an understanding of what inspectors will be looking for during site visits.

The new ethanol chapter, updated online May 13, includes information on the ethanol production industry, health and safety hazards, hazard controls, emergency planning requirements and procedures for inspecting processing facilities.

Impact on Enforcement?

Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen called the new chapter on ethanol “just a routine addition summarizing ethanol production issues.” The chapter is similar to those for other industries like oil extraction and petroleum refining, Dinneen told Bloomberg BNA May 18.

But where Dinneen saw a routine addition, industry-side attorney Gregory N. Dale saw a well-organized document that reflects a significant agency effort. Dale, a partner with Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, said the chapter would be useful for both inspectors and employers.

Moreover, Dale suggested it could be a harbinger of increased attention on the ethanol industry.

“When an agency invests the amount of time and resources it takes to develop a document of this nature, I think it's a portent of inspection activity to come,” Dale told Bloomberg BNA May 18.

Skyrocketing Production

The use of ethanol in motor vehicle fuels has driven the growth in the ethanol industry. Production in the U.S. has jumped from 1.6 billion gallons in 2000 to 14.3 billion in 2014, according to Renewable Fuels Association data.

The industry has seen nearly a 300 percent increase in the number of production facilities from 2000 to 2015, Renewable Fuels Association data show. The industry went from 54 facilities in 17 states to 213 facilities in 29 states during that time.

OSHA's efforts to police worker health and safety in the ethanol production sector haven't seemed especially vigorous during the industry's years of rapid expansion, although that could change with the new chapter in the inspectors' manual, Charles B. Palmer, a partner with Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, told Bloomberg BNA May 19.

The agency's enforcement in the sector had been focused more on process safety management issues, but about five years ago it shifted more toward the grain-handling hazards, reflecting the agency's emphasis on grain handling more broadly, Palmer said.

In 2013, OSHA proposed fines of $140,000 for a Wisconsin ethanol producer after the suffocation death of a worker inside a grain storage bin.

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Iafolla in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

The ethanol processing chapter of OSHA's technical manual is available at