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OSHA finds 15 violations in Milton United Ethanol grain bin death

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Neil Johnson
October 24, 2013

MILTON—A federal agency has slapped United Ethanol with 15 health and safety violations, and recommended the company be fined $140,000 after an investigation into the death of worker Jerod W. Guell, who died when he was buried by corn in a grain silo April 19 at the company's Milton plant.

In a report released Thursday, the Office of Safety and Health Administration said that among the violations, United Ethanol was cited for one “willful violation” under OSHA's grain-handling regulations.

The report said the facility at 1250 Chicago St., Milton, failed to shut off and lock out conveyors used to empty grain silos while Guell was working inside a silo, which exposed him to the risk of being engulfed by grain.

A “willful violation” is the most serious and is one committed with “intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard…or indifference to employee safety and health,” according to OSHA standards.

Under OSHA rules, grain-handling employees are not allowed to work inside grain silos when there is a risk of a grain collapse.

Guell, 27, was engulfed by corn and killed while he was trying to remove grain that was clogging a conveyor area at the bottom of a large storage silo, according to Milton police and fire reports. Grain piled high on the silo walls collapsed around Guell, covered him and suffocated him, reports said.

In an interview Thursday, Guell's father, West Bend resident Philip Guell, told The Gazette he has been told by plant workers that Guell might have been down on one knee with his other leg in a grain chute at the bottom of the silo, trying to “kick free” the stuck corn.

Phillip Guell said after the accident, a worker from the plant told him the “kick” method was a tactic plant workers had used before to unclog grain chutes.

“As I picture it, he wouldn't have had any time to get up and run. He didn't have a chance in the world,” Guell said. 

The Gazette could not reach United Ethanol officials for comment Thursday.

OSHA's report shows five other “serious” violations of grain-handling standards that occurred during the accident that killed Guell, including:

— Failing to have floor guards for grain chute openings.

— Failing to prevent exposure to hazardous moving parts in a grain silo.

— Failing to prevent workers from entering bins when engulfment hazards exist.

— Failing to have an observer oversee grain silo entry procedures.

— Failing to certify that all bin entry requirements had been implemented.

OSHA considers a “serious violation” to have occurred when there is “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.”

OSHA also uncovered two “other-than-serious” violations, including failing to retrain ethanol distillation workers every three years and failure to ask workers if they needed refresher training for operations, according to the report.

The report also names numerous lesser violations.

OSHA proposes but has not formalized fines totaling $140,000, according to the report.

Under federal rules, United Ethanol has 15 days from receiving the findings of OSHA's investigation report to contest it, or it must begin to rectify the violations.

United Ethanol plans to install “zero-entry grain-bin sweeps,” in its silos in Milton. In a newsletter, the company says the new equipment will “drastically reduce the number of times our employees need to enter a grain-storage bin.”

Guell said he has requested to attend any arbitration hearing between United Ethanol and OSHA if the company seeks to contest violations or seek to lower its potential fines.

Because of the severity and nature of the violations, OSHA has placed United Ethanol in OSHA's Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which includes spot inspections by OSHA.

The program is designed to ensure compliance with the law for “recalcitrant” employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeated violations, according to the report.

United Ethanol has had other safety violations in the past at another of its grain-handling facilities, according to OSHA reports.



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