Jul | Aug 13 - Grain & Feed Milling Technology

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Sweeping changes to OSHA’s sweep auger enforcement OSHA issues Enforcement Memorandum providing guidance to the grain industry about safe sweep auger work practices

by Eric J Conn, head of the OSHA Practice Group, Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., USA


fter years of confusion and frustration in the grain industry regarding how to operate sweep augers without running afoul of Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) regulations, OSHA has finally issued an enforcement policy for the US employers that identifies the conditions that must be met to allow employees back inside grain bins with operating sweep augers. Following a groundbreaking settlement of an OSHA case against an Illinois grain company that became a Final Order of the OSH Review Commission in January 2013, federal OSHA’s national office in Washington, DC issued an Enforcement Memorandum on May 3, 2013 that clarifies what engineering and work practice controls are acceptable to OSHA to eliminate or minimize the danger to employees working around sweep augers inside grain bins. Note that although the Enforcement Memorandum offers guidance for employers in the grain industry and lifts the outright ban, the burden is high for employers, and OSHA also signalled broader enforcement powers by reiterating a policy that OSHA only needs to prove potential employee exposure to establish its burden of proof.

Sweep augers A sweep auger is a device used to help 30 | July - August 2013

empty the remaining grain inside of bins after the bins are emptied as much as possible by gravity flow. Sweep augers are horizontal machines that attach to a pivot point in the center of flat-bottomed grain bins, and travel at very slow speeds in a circle around the bins. The augers pull grains, by helical screw blades called flighting, from the perimeter of the bins towards floor sumps in the centres of the bins, where the grain exists below the floor of the bins on to conveying systems outside the bin. By design, sweep augers are typically guarded from accidental contact on the top and backside, but they cannot be guarded on the front, where the flighting makes contact with the grain. The front of the sweep auger has exposed moving parts by necessity, as the flighting must be able to contact the grain to pull towards the centre sump. As a result, workers entering a storage bin to push or unjam a sweep auger, or to sweep up grain missed by the sweep auger, may be exposed to a hazard from the unguarded moving parts.

Grain Standard that was published in 1987 did not address the use of sweep augers or the conditions in which an employee may work inside a grain bin with an energized sweep auger. However, the final rule included the general statement about equipment inside grain bins at § 1910.272(g)(1)(ii): "All mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, and pneumatic equipment which presents a danger to employees inside grain storage structures shall be deenergized and shall be disconnected, locked-out and tagged, blocked-off, or otherwise prevented from operating by other equally effective means or methods". Varying informal and formal interpretations by OSHA about this language, primarily “which presents a danger” and “other equally effective means or methods,” have resulted in inconsistent enforcement by OSHA in connection with sweep augers over the years, but for the most part, OSHA allowed the practice. A series of formal OSHA Interpretation Letters beginning in 2008, however, changed that landscape.

The Grain Standard

OSHA’s sweep auger Interpretation Letters

The confusing legal landscape about the permissible conditions for working with sweep augers stems, in part, from the original implementation of the Grain Handling Standard (29 C.F.R. § 1910.272). The final

OSHA’s attention to sweep auger issues in 2008 arose from a letter from an insurance agent to OSHA requesting a formal interpretation about working inside a grain

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