While working with a flood cleanup crew in Minot, North Dakota, a quality assessment representative for the town was watching a private business owner and contractor assemble a group of workers to enter a grain storage bin. Noting that there was no safety equipment present, and knowing the hazards involved, the representative from Minot called an OSHA inspector in the area, who quickly arrived on the scene. There was no retrieval gear for the workers, the atmosphere had not been tested, and no training in grain bin entry had been given to the workers. Due to this intervention, a potential tragedy was prevented.
Unfortunately, a terrible accident in Colorado in 2009, did not have the same results. A 17-year-old worker lost his life in a grain bin. The company pled guilty to violating OSHA regulations that resulted in the death of this young man. There was a lack of safety and rescue equipment on site; however, three teenagers entered the bins without the benefit of personal protective equipment, such as a body harness and lanyard. The only instructions given to the crew were to watch out for one another and be careful. Cody, the victim, was allowed to enter the bin despite knowing that the bucket elevator was not locked out and grain was flowing from the bin. While inside the bin, he was engulfed by the flowing grain and sucked under, where his chest was crushed and he died of asphyxiation. Despite the efforts of Cody’s co-workers, they were unable to locate and rescue him.
The facts of the investigation revealed that it was common practice for this company to hire high school-age teenagers from the local area. These teens were assigned various hazardous tasks, which included bin entry, “Walking the Grain”, working in and around unguarded mechanical equipment, unsafe electrical devices, confined spaces, and exposure to explosive grain dust. Employees regularly entered the bins to “walk down grain”, the practice of walking around the edge of a bin to dislodge clumps of grain while it was flowing from the bin, without the appropriate safety harness with lanyard. A center-grain-unloading auger draws grain from the top center and the grain forms a cone as the bin is emptied.
There are many deadly hazards of engulfment and suffocation while working inside grain storage bins. Grain bins are used to store bulk raw agricultural commodities such as wheat, corn, and oats. If workers stand on moving or flowing grain, it can be like “quicksand” and pull them under. If they stand on or below “bridged” grain, it can collapse and bury workers. Also, if they try to loosen grain, it can cave in on them. OSHA’s Hazard Alert warns how workers can become engulfed in these bins, and lists precautions that employers must take to protect workers. These include:
- Disconnecting equipment that presents a danger;
- Prohibiting workers from walking on the grain to make it flow;
- Providing workers with personal protective and rescue equipment;
- Requiring an observer outside the bin who is trained on how to perform rescue operations.
In the case of the teenager who lost his life, the company paid $500,000 to his family, as well as fines to OSHA. OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels stated, “This is a terrible tragedy that should never have happened. Money won’t bring back this young man’s life, but we can make every effort to ensure that these tragedies don’t happen again.” The company involved is required to implement safety provisions that include providing safety training and refresher training to its employees, and develop a procedure that includes harnesses and lanyards or similar safety equipment in anticipation of bin entry at any of its grain elevators. If they violate any of these terms of probabion, they could be potentially liable for up to another $500,000 fine.
Parents: don’t hesitate to find out what kind of job your teenager is going to be asked to do. It’s not worth taking a chance. Companies should never gamble with their employees’ lives, especially when they put them in hazardous situations that are entirely preventable.