May 08--OFFERLE -- Duane Boyd knows all too well that his profession is a hazardous one.
The 30-plus-year general manager of Offerle Cooperative Grain and Supply has watched as dozens of fatalities have occurred over the years at Kansas grain elevators, including seven people last year.
Boyd, however, isn't sitting back and waiting for the day a workplace casualty happens at his cooperative -- especially as his employees prepare for June's annual wheat harvest.
For more than a decade, the Kansas Department of Labor, along with industry firms like Hutchinson-based insurance provider KFSA, have promoted a voluntary safety program aimed at curbing accidents in any dangerous workplace, including Kansas' elevators. Boyd himself began the process in 1999, enrolling in the program -- which goes above and beyond Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards -- to keep his employees safe.
But accomplishing such a feat wasn't easy, Boyd admits. It took 10 years and $1.1 million for the western Kansas elevator chain to get qualified in the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition -- or SHARP -- program.
"It feels good to know that we have made these improvements," Boyd said of procedures completed in his three facilities, which included better dust control measures, as well as installing exit ladders and railings. "You have to take in consideration the safety of the individuals working -- you don't want to lose anyone. You want to be a safe as you can."
More than 30 people have died in U.S. grain elevators since 2008, with 10 of the deaths in Kansas. And, from January 2000 through Aug. 15, 2011, the state has had 18 work-related deaths in all, according to an OSHA document last year.
This caused the agency to continue to focus efforts on safety in Kansas.
"In Kansas, the grain-handling industry experienced the highest number of workplace fatalities, which resulted in an OSHA inspection," according to an OSHA document.
The agency noted that a renewed OSHA enforcement presence was warranted due to continuing incidents, such as explosions, falls and asphyxiation.
Safety program assistance isn't anything new, said Lead SHARP Coordinator Ken Bieker, with the state labor department's Division of Industrial Safety and Health. Programs have been around since 1972.
However, it wasn't until the middle 1990s that there was a bigger push by the state to get more involved in the voluntary program. At that time, there were only three qualified facilities.
The KDOL has a contract with OSHA to run the free program. Bieker, who does all the work with grain elevators, said he has consultations at facilities and tells operators how to improve.
"We don't issue citations," he said, adding that those who become SHARP-qualified are exempt from routine OSHA inspections. "They deal with us."
Facilities can be qualified for one to two years before someone inspects them again to continue in the program.
Like most companies that qualify for SHARP, grain handling is a high-hazard industry, Bieker said.
"It is not a pretty thing," he said of when an accident happens. "It has happened a few times here in Kansas."
The nation's deadliest explosion occurred in June 1998 at DeBruce Grain near Wichita, where a grain dust explosion killed seven and injured 10.
Another deadly explosion -- which was the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health's top occupational accident in 2011 -- was at Atchison, where an explosion at the Bartlett Grain Co. killed six people and injured two.
According to OSHA, Bartlett faces five willful and eight serious safety violations for the explosion, caused by grain dust. OSHA notes that grain dust is nine times as explosive as coal dust.
Most incidents, however, are single casualties. In June 2011, an employee died at Golden Valley Inc. in Rozel. He was sweeping the elevator when he stepped into a manhole and fell 70 feet into a grain bin, according to the OSHA report.
OSHA cited Golden Valley for seven serious violations after the accident, which could lead to nearly $25,000 in fines.
A month later, the agency did a planned inspection and issued two more serious violations.
Bieker said Atchison was not part of the SHARP program.
In fact, he added, the elevators enrolled in the program presently have not had any serious incidents, "knock on wood."
Working for safety
Kansas is No. 1 in the nation in SHARP enrollment, with 167 businesses involved -- 60 being grain elevators. This doesn't surprise Terri Sanchez, director of the labor department division.
"We are a fairly small state and, by word of mouth, they're asking for us and for our services," she said, noting, "I definitely owe a lot of it to KFSA -- they seem to communicate well with their grain elevators."
Scott Anderson, vice president of Risk Management Services with Hutchinson-based KFSA, a company that provides insurance to grain elevators, said he and his staff work with elevators in the program, which includes encouraging facilities to enroll in SHARP.
Meanwhile, KFSA also manages Ag Services -- a company with 15 employees who do safety and compliance for elevators and other agribusiness.
SHARP is a good tool because it is a validation process, he said.
"Basically, it shows their customers and their employees that they want to go above and beyond as far as safety ... that they want to keep the bad things from occurring," Anderson said.
SHARP does take a lot of work on the company's part to get qualified, he said. The state agency requires several site checks, along with a lot of paperwork that elevator officials must complete before a facility can comply.
Also, elevators in the program must have incident rates below industry standards, he said.
Despite the work involved, KFSA members see the importance, including Bob Ward, chief executive officer at United Prairie Ag based in Ulysses. Each year, the grain group has worked to get its facilities into the program, with the last of the 12 sites enrolled this year.
Ward said some of the improvements his facility made included installing handrails, man-lift covers, and resolving a few electrical issues.
The SHARP program also provides another set of eyes to check for problems, he said.
"The reason we did it is because safety is a big thing for us," he said. "We wanted to be No. 1 compliant and create the safest working environment for our employees. It's another tool, another element to use."
Ward noted a quote from Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels.
"OSHA standards help save lives, but only if companies comply with it," Ward said. "That is exactly right. And we're not just complying with their standards, but going beyond them."
Bieker said he is seeing more elevators enroll every year -- enough so that they have a backlog.
"Our companies have grabbed the bull by the horns," he said. "They have really taken care of things. They are making this safety program work for them."
(c)2012 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.)
Visit The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.) at www.hutchnews.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services