OSHA cites grain co-op after ammonia release kills truck driver

By Clarissa Hawes, Land Line staff writer | 7/23/2014

The U.S. Department of Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited a grain cooperative with a dozen serious safety violations following an uncontrolled release of anhydrous ammonia that killed a truck driver and injured three others at its Tecumseh, Neb., facility in March.

OSHA has also proposed penalties of $62,101 to Midwest Farmers Cooperative, headquartered in Elmwood, Neb., which was formed in January between Greenwood Farmers Cooperative and Waverly Farmers Cooperative.

Bonita Winingham, OSHA’s area director in Omaha, told Land Line on Wednesday, July 23, that driver John Bennet, 63, of Greenwood, Neb., was transferring anhydrous ammonia from his tanker truck to a storage tank when the incident occurred.

“The 250-gallon water tank, or bleeder tank, ruptured during the transfer from the tanker to the storage tank,” she said. “Too much ammonia was bled off too quickly, which created a reaction, causing the tank to rupture.”

Another OSHA representative, Bernard Hauber, told Land Line that the agency’s investigation found that the bleeder valve had been left open during the transfer. He added that bleeder valves are to be opened slowly to minimize an uncontrolled release of anhydrous ammonia.

While OSHA has cited the company twice in 2011 with the issuance of eight violations, Winingham said the facility where the incident occurred had not been inspected in the past five years.

The driver, who had worked for the cooperative for 10 years, died at the hospital from complications related to ammonia inhalation.

OSHA states that the truck driver had not been provided with proper safety equipment, including a respirator or protective clothing, as required by OSHA regulations.

The agency also claims the grain cooperative violated several of OSHA’s Storage and Handling of Anhydrous Ammonia Standards by failing to inspect and maintain ammonia equipment and piping to prevent potential leaks and system failure and did not develop and train workers or have an emergency response plan in case of an uncontrolled anhydrous release.

Three others were injured in the incident, including a cooperative employee, a sheriff’s deputy who was responding to the scene, as well as a maintenance worker who was working nearby on rail tracks for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

Winingham said OSHA determined that this was a “preventable incident.”

“Our goal is to educate both employers and employees about safety and health issues to avoid preventable incidents like this from occurring,” she said. “We don’t want employers or employees to fear an OSHA inspection if you call with a question, instead we want to work with everyone involved. If you get to a facility and you don’t feel that safety measures are being taken, we urge you to call OSHA and see if we can help.”

Midwest Farmers Cooperative is contesting the violations and has requested a hearing with the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

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