Federal regulators emphasize safety at Nebraska grain elevators

Frontier Cooperative worker Steve Kadavy releases grain into a receiving pit this week in Mead. Grain handlers face problems from combustible dust and slip-and-fall hazards, among other things.

The big tanker full of corn rumbled into the Frontier Cooperative grain elevator in Mead, Neb., deposited a few hundred bushels into the underground receiving pit and was gone in less than five minutes.

The driver spoke with no one — the receiving, weighing and documentation are all automated via digital scanners at the handling facility about 30 miles west of Omaha, one of 13 in the farmer-owned cooperative's family of grain elevators.

And for farmers, time is money, especially at harvest time, when the trucks will be lined up onto County Road 10 to get the grain on the train. The corn is California-bound, where it goes to feed dairy cows. As for the soybeans, they ride the rails to pressing plants to be turned into soy oil, which Randy Robeson said is in about everything these days.

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“We are getting more done in an hour here than we ever used to,” said Robeson, Frontier Cooperative's general manager. “We can receive 1,000 bushels in 30 seconds and can load a 100-car train in 10 hours.”

It is all part of the nation's grain elevator system, one part of the world's most productive agricultural economy. Grain elevators are the concrete and steel sculptures found on rural roads all over Nebraska, the bins, tanks and silos where corn and soybeans are received, sorted, sometimes dried and eventually stored until loaded onto a train. Many are cooperatives, such as Frontier, which is owned by the farmers that use it. Others are part of large companies specializing in grain sales.

What they all have in common right now is the rapt attention of government safety regulators. OSHA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has made Nebraska grain elevators an “industry of local emphasis,” taking a particular interest in the confined spaces, combustible grain dust and slip-and-fall hazards the agency says are too often part of the workday.

“Grain facilities are going to get comprehensive inspections,” said Bonita Winningham, OSHA's area director for Nebraska. “And if we identify hazards, we are going to address them.”

But Winningham said there is still too much trouble at grain elevators. In 2010, 26 people died around the country from being engulfed by grain, drowning in it, mostly after walking on large piles. That year was a record one for grain-handling deaths and injuries, OSHA said.

Winningham said there has been at least one fatal engulfment each year in Nebraska going back many years; there have been three explosions this year that have burned workers, she said.

Working at a grain elevator — busy ones employ about 10 people during harvest season and three or four year-round — has its unique hazards. Engulfment happens when workers walk on stored grain, such as in a bin or warehouse. Small amounts of moisture in the grain can form a crust, known as a bridge in the business, that is strong enough to hold someone's weight. Trouble is, the bridges can fail without notice.

“It takes five seconds to be engulfed by flowing grain and 60 seconds to suffocate,” Winningham said. “Our ultimate goal is for no one to ever walk on the grain, but if they do, we want them in safety harnesses and with an observer present.”

There are pits all over grain elevators, confined spaces where toxic gases can build from the organic material, or where dust can hit a spark and ignite into a deadly explosion. Catwalks and machines rise many stories into the sky. An arsenal of rotating augers and conveyor belts snakes through underground warrens to handle the crops through reception, sorting, drying, storage and eventual loading into train cars from overhead.

OSHA's interest has the industry thinking. The National Grain and Feed Association, the elevator industry's trade group, held its annual conference on new facility design in Omaha this week. It wrapped up Thursday, after two days of conferences, seminars and a trade show.

Seminar topics included “how drying and aeration technology and practices are impacting new construction and retrofitting existing facilities” and “how to design new and existing transfer points to have less dust collection requirements and therefore less air emissions.”

About 200 people packed the downtown Hilton Omaha to hear a Wednesday session on safety aspects of new or retrofitted elevators. Presenter Paul Luther, a St. Louis safety consultant, led the audience through the list of horrors facing grain handlers, from combustible dust leaking through loose bolts on equipment to not having machinery cutoff switches close at hand.

“If the motor cutoff control is down three flights of stairs and the elevator is stuck because someone has the door open, the odds of that happening 100 percent of the time are probably not perfect,” Luther said.

OSHA's methods haven't met with 100 percent approval. In June, OSHA filed court papers asking for a judge to order the Farmers Cooperative grain elevator in Talmage, Neb., to provide more information about safety and health practices after a worker died there in January, the victim of being hit by a truck.

The elevator's managers, OSHA said in court papers, refused to answer questions unrelated to the worker fatality, with their lawyer calling the inquiries a “fishing expedition” designed to find violations under the guise of investigating the death.

Winningham, OSHA's top official in Nebraska, said resistance is unwise.

“We will always investigate fatalities and catastrophes,” she said. “We can request the production of documents and information, and if an employer refuses, we can get a judge's order.”

It has happened before, she said. In just the past year, an employer in Nebraska refused to comply with OSHA inquiries. The responsible person spent five days in jail after being held in contempt of court before finally agreeing to comply, Winningham said.

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