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.


Lawrence_Pilot 6 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).

jonas_opines 6 years, 5 months ago

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

tomatogrower 6 years, 5 months ago

Some employers are willing to run a risk, because it's not them who gets hurt. I know you think that all business executives are responsible, ethical people, but you do live in a fantasy world. You really need to get out more.

akuna 6 years, 5 months ago

No, I believe it is you that won the dumbest statement of the day.

akuna 6 years, 5 months ago

I stole it from you, which means you just made fun of yourself for me. Thanks. XOXO

Horace 6 years, 5 months ago

"Businesses are constantly looking out for safety because it is in their economic interest to do so. "

Dr. Pangloss, is that you?

What lawsuits are you referring to?

Workers comp protects the owners from wrongful death lawsuits. The most they are on hook for is about 250,000 per person.

And even the most cursory review of American history would reveal that businesses, left to their own devices, places employee safety behind any number of objectives.

Tammy Yergey 6 years, 5 months ago

Liberty_One, I work for a chemical company, and trust me, owners and managers alike do not care about employee safety or public safety as a whole. This comes from many years experience and discussions with many competitors as well. They are deathly afraid of lawsuits though. But they work on odds... if odds are a few extra contaminants aren't going to show up in the chemicals, they will do nothing. I have to say, the new owners are not that way, but management still is. They have to keep the bottom line as bottom as possible. I think we need more regulation, not less.

voevoda 6 years, 5 months ago

Liberty_One, The problem with your view is this: if it will cost employers less to pay for the occasional funeral and buy off survivors than it would to protect the health and safety of their employees, they will let their employees die. If there are no regulations for employers to violate, then they won't even be liable for wrongful death lawsuits. Maybe you'd like to live in a country that operates that way in the name of promoting the maximum wealth for a few, but most of the rest of us prefer to live in a country where We the People protect the lives of us all. We have a different set of values from you, Liberty_One.

ferrislives 6 years, 5 months ago

Doesn't the 1998 blast at the DeBruce elevator refute your argument?

"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."

According to your logic, this company should have been "risk-averse", but they weren't. They weighed the pros and cons of how they were going to conduct business, and it obviously didn't involve any risk aversion for them.

I know that one incident happened 13 years ago now, but I'll bet that there are other companies across America that have that same attitude. They only care when they get caught, and that's the point of having some regulations. There needs to be a balance. Too far one way or the other leads to disaster financially or with the lives of workers.

Horace 6 years, 5 months ago

"Entrepreneurs are risk-averse."

Entrepreneurs are almost, by definition, risk seeking. They put capital at risk, and hope for a greater than market return.

With regards to saferty, the issue is that the human brain has systematic biases that make it difficult for us to appreciate the impact of potential future loses. We tend to discount such loses at an irrational rate.

In other words, even if we "know" that something really bad might happen in the future, our brains are bad at accepting it. There are all sorts of hypothesis about evolutionary causes, but the phenomena is repeatedly confirmed experimentally.

So, even if a business is run with the best intentions (which many are not) there is still a place for the goverment to make sure that worker safety is properly accounted for.

TopJayhawk 6 years, 5 months ago

At the beginning of the thread, oldvet said that there will always be dangers and you just have to take your chances.

He never said any of the things you guys are "bloviating" about.

You all get hyped up, and talk and talk, and you don't even know what you are responding too.

too much education, too little common sense.

yourworstnightmare 6 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.

tomatogrower 6 years, 5 months ago

And to heck with the worker's families?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 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.

seriouscat 6 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.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 5 months ago

Comparing a traitor, a sworn enemy of the state, an enemy combatant with an honest citizen who is simply going to work at an honest job, trying to earn an honest living, that's not just naive, that's dishonest, it's distasteful. It's wrong. LO, you should seriously consider that statement and withdraw it.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 5 months ago

If a president could "simply" declare someone an enemy combatant, I guess it would be happening all the time. It's not, though. It's very rare indeed. I believe this is the first of it's kind. So no, it's not simple at all. And the president, any president does not stand on a high mountain, immune to the laws that govern us all. He must stand before the voters every four years and he is accountable to the very same laws as you and I. Congress has the authority to remove him and the courts may rule his actions right or wrong. No, simple this is not.
Upon further reflection, I have withdrawn statements in the past. This is not one I will withdraw. I wonder if you can make the same claim. Are your ideas so fixed that they cannot be changed under any condition? Is your mind so closed? Again, you compared a terrorist with an honest American citizen who happened to lose his life in an accident on the job. There is really no valid comparison that can be made.
Take a moment, LO, think, take a deep breath, reflect, then comment.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 5 months ago

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

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 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.

Paul R Getto 6 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.'

verity 6 years, 5 months ago

"Do they pledge allegiance to the USA?"

Interesting question.

If they are disloyal to the USA, can we try them for treason?

Cait McKnelly 6 years, 5 months ago

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

jhawkinsf 6 years, 5 months ago

So you do want government regulating bodies or you don't?

Cait McKnelly 6 years, 5 months ago

Well in that case maybe gummints need to have laws put on their "bodies" too.

Cait McKnelly 6 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.

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