*Randall Gordon is president of the National Grain & Feed Assn.
IN recent months, there has been a lot of media and government focus on safety in the grain and feed industry.
The impression being imprinted on the public mind is that grain bin engulfments are rampant and on the rise — both on the farm and in the commercial industry — and that very little is being done to address the issue by either the government or the industry.
One outgrowth of that attention was the Occupational Safety & Health Administration's (OSHA) release of a new hazard alert in June that "explains the dangers in this industry, which include suffocation from engulfment and entrapment; fires and explosions from grain dust accumulation, falls from heights and crushing injuries and amputations from grain handling equipment."
In an accompanying press release and numerous "tweets," OSHA Administrator David Michaels cited engulfments as the leading cause of death in grain bins and then made this statement: "The number of tragedies continues to climb."
Is that, indeed, the case?
According to records maintained by Purdue University, the number of engulfments reached a record number of 57 in calendar year 2010 (Figure), which experts largely attributed to hazards presented by the extremely wet corn crop stored that year. Since that time, the number of incidents has declined — yes, declined — to 30 in calendar 2011 and 19 in 2012.
To be clear, any engulfment incident is tragic, and the goal as an industry has been, and always will be, to achieve zero incidents.
Grain handling operations are obligated to adhere to the requirements of the federal OSHA grain handling safety standard that have been publicized widely by the National Grain & Feed Assn. (NGFA), state and regional grain and feed associations, individual companies, farm/commodity groups and OSHA.
NGFA shared the agency's objective to continually promote and enhance workplace safety. In response to the uptick in engulfment incidents in 2010, NGFA launched a "Safety First" initiative to reiterate and reinforce the importance of safety within the grain handling, feed and processing industry. Through the initiative, for example:
* NGFA has partnered over the past two years with state and regional affiliates to conduct 11 regional safety seminars that have attracted more than 750 industry participants. These events, which have been funded in considerable part by the National Grain & Feed Foundation to maximize participation, have focused on important aspects of the grain handling standard and promoted both existing and new training programs, including a heavy emphasis on preventing engulfments and explosion incidents.
* NGFA and Grain Journal conducted an annual national safety conference, held recently in Omaha, Neb., that focused on incorporating new standards and technologies when designing new or retrofitting existing facilities to maximize both safety and operational efficiency.
* In another project financed in part by the foundation, NGFA partnered with the National Corn Growers Assn. to produce a video on CD, released in February 2011, on proper grain bin entry procedures, specifically for on-farm storage structures.
* Safety sessions also are an important focus of many other NGFA-conducted conferences and events, such as the annual Country Elevator Conference and NGFA annual convention. In addition, we are looking for ways to utilize new communications technologies, such as additional webinars, to further spread the safety message.
So, have these efforts contributed to the decline in engulfment incidents over the past two years?
I cut my eye-teeth with NGFA in the late 1970s, joining the staff just months after a devastating series of 20 grain elevator explosions in 1977 claimed 65 lives and injured 84 more. I had a front-row seat to see how industry leaders responded.
In a matter of days, a Management Team on Elevator Explosions & Fires was established within NGFA that consisted of top industry management and safety professionals who, within a span of five days, developed and distributed to the industry a set of safety guidelines outlining steps that, at that time, were known to be effective in reducing such risks.
Nevertheless, these industry leaders and dedicated NGFA staff didn't stop there. There were a lot of theories and speculation swirling around at that time about what the causes of explosions might be.
In response, NGFA established an industry-led Fire & Explosion Research Council consisting of 50 outstanding managers, engineers and scientists.
That council subsequently financed 38 research projects conducted by 18 separate research organizations that focused on three major objectives: (1) learning more about the causes of grain, feed and processing facility fires and explosions and how to prevent them, (2) developing new technology and best practices to control and eliminate fires and explosions and (3) conducting a broad-based education and information program to share the lessons learned with the entire industry as well as with all other interested parties.
NGFA member companies responded by contributing $1.4 million to fund the research. In addition, NGFA contributed $700,000 out of its own budget, and industry representatives invested more than $560,000 in volunteer time and travel expenses to identify, evaluate and oversee research projects that had the greatest potential for yielding practical results to improve safety. Finally, research contributions from outside the industry exceeded more than $800,000. Overall, a total of $3.5 million was spent on the fire and explosion research.
Through the research, the industry gained fundamental new knowledge about elevator design and management best practices that were used to make facilities safer.
Most important, the number and severity of explosions dropped precipitously.
Thirty-five years later, I still consider this ambitious and well-conceived fire and explosion research effort to be one of NGFA's crowning achievements during the time I've been blessed to serve at NGFA.
It's a tried-and-true formula that works: determining the facts, utilizing proactive and aggressive safety education and training efforts and a daily commitment by management to put "Safety First" to protect the industry's most valuable asset — those who work in its facilities.