Archive for Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Regulations can reduce risk of deadly explosions at grain elevators

November 2, 2011


— No one needs to tell Steven Stallbaumer about the dangers of working in grain elevators.

He was unloading fertilizer outside a Kansas elevator in 1998 when it exploded, killing seven workers. The blast knocked Stallbaumer underneath a railroad car, and he figures that saved his life. A big motor fell from the top of the elevator and landed beside the dump truck where he had been working.

“All I heard is a boom, boom,” Stallbaumer said.

A similar blast killed six people last weekend at the Bartlett Grain Co. elevator in Atchison, about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City. Experts say such deadly accidents have become less frequent and grain elevators are safer than they’ve ever been thanks to rules and procedures established after a rash of explosions killed 50 people in four states in six days in the late 1970s. But they also agree only so much can be done to prevent explosions.

“We do work in a very dangerous environment, and unfortunately there have been accidents,” said Darwin Franzen, the general manager at Farmer’s Cooperative Co. in Hinton, Iowa. “You try as hard as you can, but sometimes there is something that causes these terrible accidents to occur.”

Farmers take corn and other grain to elevators to be stored and sometimes processed before it’s marketed and sold. There are more than 10,000 commercial grain-handling operations nationwide, with large numbers in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Texas. Fine, highly combustible dust particles flow through the buildings as the grain is moved. A spark from equipment or an overheated bearing on a conveyor can ignite the dust, sending a pressure wave that detonates the rest of the dust floating in the facility.

Stallbaumer, now 50, had worked at the DeBruce Grain Co. elevator in Haysville, southwest of Wichita, for 13 years before it exploded. He’d been in the industry since he was 18 or 19, working first as a grain inspector and later at several elevators in the area. He said he’d always been worried about an explosion.

“If the place ain’t clean, that is going to blow up,” he said. “It just takes a matter of time. There has to be a certain element — the dust, then there has to be a spark and she will go off like a time bomb.”

The explosion at the Bartlett elevator happened while workers were loading a train with corn. Figuring out what sparked it could take up to six months, said Scott Allen, spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The elevator had not been inspected since Bartlett purchased it about five years ago, although OSHA has stepped up inspections in Kansas since the DeBruce explosion. Bartlett officials declined to answer questions about their safety procedures or facilities.

OSHA has several inspectors at the Bartlett elevator and will be interviewing employees and company officials. But, investigators can’t always determine what happened because the blast can destroy evidence.

“It’s kind of like going into a building that’s burned and trying to determine what happened,” Allen said.

The agency blamed the 1998 blast at the DeBruce elevator on corporate decisions to allow grain dust to accumulate, skip repairs and abandon preventive maintenance of equipment. Investigators found the most probable ignition source was a conveyor belt roller bearing that had seized up from lack of lubrication and become hot enough to ignite dust in the area.

Federal regulations have become tougher since the late 1970s, when the nation saw an average of 25 grain elevator explosions each year. During six days in December 1977, grain elevators exploded in Louisiana, Texas, Illinois and Mississippi, killing 50 people and injuring another 50.

The government’s top grain inspector threatened to close down all U.S. export grain elevators until safety could be assured. The industry responded by doing research on grain dust explosions, modifying equipment and building safer facilities. For example, many companies now move grain from the bottom to the top of storage facilities with outdoor “bucket elevators.” That way, if a part should overheat or create a spark, it won’t come in contact with dust inside the building.

“When you look at the history of dust explosions, those (interior) elevators have been a primary source where explosions have most often occurred,” said Dirk Maier, head of the Department of Grain Science and Industry at Kansas State University.

OSHA revamped its regulations in 1987. Experts say a key to reducing explosions has been simple rules, such as banning welding when grain is being moved and dust is kicked up. Many explosions also were caused by sparks from malfunctioning machines, which are now watched more closely to ensure they’re well-oiled and don’t overheat. Other improvements have included stricter codes for electrical systems and valves that relieve pressure if an explosion occurs.

In Kansas, some elevators now use magnets to pull out bits of metal that can mix with grain when it’s harvested or transported, reducing the risk of a possible spark.

The result has been fewer than nine explosions per year between 2001 and 2005, the latest period for which OSHA has data available. Explosions also have become less deadly as automation has reduced the number of workers in many facilities. The number of fatalities dropped from an average of 21 in the late 1970s to about one a year between 2001 and 2005.

Maier said the grain industry has been “very proactive” in making changes to improve safety.


Cait McKnelly 2 years, 5 months ago

Let's play a game. "I'll believe corporations are people when___"

Here's some to get you started! ....Texas executes one. .....I see the birth certificate. (And it has to be the "long form".) .....I see one actually registered to vote. .....I see one doing jury duty.


Agnostick 2 years, 5 months ago

The Supremes said corporations are people, too... remember?


Cait McKnelly 2 years, 5 months ago

Oh noes! Not the regulations! Can't you hear the corporations now? "Don't put your laws on my "body"!"


Paul R Getto 2 years, 5 months ago

The tragedy at the elevator is sad; this 'conversation' is sadder. Regulations, to a point, are useful and necessary. Corporations are interested more in their survival than anything else. After all, they are 'people.'


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 5 months ago

"Entrepreneurs" are certainly risk-averse when they themselves are put at risk. But historically, they haven't been averse at all to putting others at risk, especially their (very replaceable) employees and the general public.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 5 months ago

If it becomes too difficult to talk about apples, change the subject to oranges.


Liberty_One 2 years, 5 months ago

What's funny is all these state-ophile's complaining about firms not caring about employee safety never look at the record of the institution they worship--the state. Does anyone actually think the state, which just ordered the death of an American citizen without any due process, cares about anyone's safety?

Talk about naive.


seriouscat 2 years, 5 months ago

A 13-month independent investigation into the coal-mine explosion that killed 29 Massey Energy Co. workers last year concluded the accident could have been prevented and was primarily the result of the failure of the company's safety systems, as well as inadequate oversight by federal and state regulators.

Industry has a long, LONG history of not giving a rat's butt about worker safety.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 5 months ago

Regulations are nothing more than the codification of research and common sense, and the expectation that they be implemented, with penalties for failing to do so.

Sure, owners stand to lose plenty when explosions like this occur, but they still do occur, as this blast indicates. Maybe this particular grain elevator company will learn something from this blast, but unless those lessons are codified in a way that all other grain companies can also implement them (i.e., regulations) then there will be more explosions and more people killed and injured, simply because there are ideological (but not necessarily logical) biases against any sort of government regulation.

And the simple fact is that history is replete with examples of businesses who couldn't care less about the health and safety of their workplaces unless they are required to do so. Some people think that this could be taken care of by endless litigation (many of them law students, go figure) but this is nothing but wishful thinking/wishful career advancement.


yourworstnightmare 2 years, 5 months ago

This is just the invisible hand of the free market making corrections and adjustments.

After all, who could have predicted that millions of gallons of explosive grain dust held in giant sealed containers could be dangerous?

Let the market dictate business. Humans could have never predicted this danger.


Pywacket 2 years, 5 months ago

People who DON'T think owners actually prefer to take chances and require regulations to ratchet up safety measures are evidently smoking corn dust while standing around a history-book bonfire.

I'm not speaking specifically of this operation in Atchison (they may be a family-oriented, caring facility that was doing its level best), but industry has always resisted change that would (in the short term at least) eat into profits while increasing safety. And, no--it isn't logical but large organizations tend to leave logic back where they park their hearts and souls.

Not just this industry, but meat production/packing, the automobile industry, the textile industry (Triangle Shirtwaist fire and resulting reforms, anyone?), Big Oil, shipping, and on and on, have always been quite willing to absorb the losses incurred by relatively rare disasters (largely underwritten in many cases) and continue the way they always have done. Again and again, it has taken government regulations to reform industry procedures and to retool equipment to make it safer.

A century ago, the human losses at factories, food production facilities (notably meat, but many others), oil refineries, etc., were simply appalling. In those largely unregulated times, company owners ran roughshod over the nonexistent rights of workers and surviving families, paying little or no compensation for deaths or massive injuries and firing workers whose injuries were survivable but impaired the victim's ability to return to the same job. You're extremely naive if you think it would be any different today if not for government regulation.

There is a wealth of written evidence to this effect if you follow the timeline from the beginning of the Industrial Age to today. Can you not read or do you prefer not to so as not to have to question your right-wing agenda?

Nobody's asking for utopia (what a simplistic and glib comment); rather, people are simply asking that industry not become complacent but should continue striving to make every workplace as safe as possible. That's neither unrealistic nor utopian.

If you were to create a bar graph showing two lines: safety (measured in worker deaths/debilitating injuries) over the last 100 years or so and government regulations over that same time, you'd see a steady, parallel rise. If you persist in thinking that's a coincidence or that the rise in safety would have happened without regulation, take a good hard look at the same factors in Russia/USSR or China over the same timeline, where the governments did NOT make human safety a priority.


oletimer 2 years, 5 months ago

First, my sincere condolences to the families of the terrible accident. That being said, the government already has rules and regulations concerning grain elevators. Heck they have rules and regulations on everything under the sun, except how to run a government successfully. Every job is dangerous. Period. Being a firefighter for the last fifteen years, I have a pretty good idea of dangerous. Every job has it's good and bad. Unfortunately, sometimes there is not a lot you can do to change things that happen. Grain dust is a hazard with elevators that no amount of regulation can change. It is a fact of life. It can also cause death and destruction. Accidents happen. Lives are lost. This is today's world. When your time comes to meet your maker, not much you can do. The cards are dealt. Just play the hand and enjoy your time on this earth.


Liberty_One 2 years, 5 months ago

It's always amusing to hear these stories. It's as if no one ever thought that the owners actually stand to lose something as well if the grain elevator explodes. Gee, what's several million dollars in lawsuit settlements, lost equipment, time, grain and the elevator itself when I can save a few thousand and take my chances!

People who think that entrepreneurs think this way have never owned a business themselves. Businesses are constantly looking out for safety because it is in their economic interest to do so.

But hey, let's strive for utopia and lock everyone up in prison--that way everyone will be 100% safe, right?


jonas_opines 2 years, 5 months ago

The first comment wasn't by Liberty One? I am disappointed.


Lawrence_Pilot 2 years, 5 months ago

What, wa, wa? Regulations are Job Killers. We can't have more regulations to protect workers or the environment! That will Kill Jobs, at least that's what all 10 GOP presidential candidates say, without any evidence whatsoever (and in spite of evidence quite to the contrary).


Commenting has been disabled for this item.