Gazette Investigation: Milton United Ethanol's owner had OSHA safety violations in past

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Neil Johnson
Monday, May 6, 2013

— For former United Ethanol employee Dan Pakes, the April 19 death of Jerod Guell just doesn’t make sense.

Guell, 27, was killed after he was buried by thousands of bushels of corn while he tried to clear clogged chutes at the bottom of a grain bin at United Ethanol’s Milton plant, officials said. Guell was once Pakes’ supervisor at the plant.

“He’d be the last guy …” Pakes said, trailing off. “You know … he’d always be the one to tell us what to do to be safe … the last guy you think this would happen to.”

Pakes, 57, who said he worked as a grain handler at United Ethanol between 2008 and 2010, said he was always impressed by Guell’s leadership and his attention to detail and safety at the plant, which produces ethanol and ethanol byproducts.

“Not a whole lot of 53-year-old guys want to take commands from a 23-year-old kid. I didn’t have any problem doing that with Jerod,” Pakes said. “He didn’t seem like a kid, he seemed like a mature man. He did his job very well.”

The mystery of Guell’s death has troubled Pakes so much that he contacted The Gazette from farm work in a tractor to talk about his former boss.

United Ethanol has given the public no clues about what might have gone wrong inside the bin when Guell was killed, but the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is in the first stages of a months-long investigation, officials said.

OSHA Area Director Kim Stille said her agency will take several weeks if not months to investigate. The investigation is intended to reveal what happened and whether United Ethanol had proper safety measures in place during the accident.

The investigation is not the first time OSHA has looked into safety deficiencies at facilities operated by United Cooperative, the Ripon-based company that owns United Ethanol’s Milton plant, according to OSHA records.

And if OSHA’s investigation of the Milton accident overturns violations, it would not be the first time United Cooperative was cited or fined by OSHA for safety violations involving grain handling and enclosed spaces, according to OSHA records.

An online OSHA database that lists corporate safety inspection records shows United Cooperative has been investigated for accidents four times since 2003, according to records.

Last year, OSHA cited and fined United Cooperative in three safety violations during a planned inspection at the company’s Hartford-based grain elevator and storage facility, according to records.

The violations, which OSHA characterized in reports as “serious,” included improper practices in grain handling and permit-required confined spaces at the Hartford facility.

OSHA did not fine United Cooperative for its grain-handling violation at its Hartford facility, but it initially fined the company $4,250 for the permit-required confined spaces violation, and initially fined United $4,250 for a fixed ladder violation at the facility, according to records.

OSHA later rolled back the confined-spaces fine to $2,000 and eliminated the ladder fine completely, according to OSHA records that detailed an informal settlement with United Cooperative.

Details of conditions leading to fines are not listed in OSHA’s database, and United Cooperative did not respond to a Gazette inquiry about the violations.

According to Milton police and fire department reports about the April 19 incident, Guell had entered one of several grain-storage bins at the ethanol plant through a ground-level hatch.

He then went below ground level, to the bottom of the bin, and was working with a shovel to clear underground grain chutes that were choked off with chunks of stuck-together corn, according to fire and police reports.

Guell was shoveling a trench in a relatively shallow pile of corn at the bottom of the bin. He’d radioed to another employee who was working outside the bin as spotter for the operation, and told the employee to open the hatches below to attempt to release corn, according to the reports.

At that point, the outside spotter lost radio contact with Guell. He hurried up to the hatch to find an apparent collapse of corn in the bin, according to the reports. Guell was nowhere in sight.

Milton firefighters found corn piled 25 feet high on the sides of the bin, and corn piled in the bottom of the bin even with the ground-level hatch. Plant employees were trying to dig several feet down to find Guell, who was buried below—under thousands of bushels of corn.

Firefighters from 16 departments worked for hours to cut holes in the bin and to vacuum out corn to reach Guell. When rescuers finally found Guell, he was at the bottom of the bin and was dead, according to fire department reports.

Gregg Swenson, an Edgerton-area summer resident and a private safety consultant for OSHA who also trains companies that handle grain on safety and emergency rescue, shed some light on safety protocols in commercial grain bin work.

Swenson, who is not involved in the OSHA investigation at the Milton plant, said companies that handle grain or deal with enclosed spaces must adhere to OSHA standards for filling out permits that detail work inside grain bins.

According to OSHA rules for commercial grain handling, workers inside bins in most circumstances must wear safety harnesses with secured safety lines. OSHA rules also prohibit workers from entering bins when there is a hazard they could become buried in a grain collapse.

In the accident that killed Guell, corn sloped at least 30 feet up the walls of the bin, according to police reports.

Dan Pakes, the former grain handler at the Milton plant, said workers entering grain bins at the plant normally wear respirators to protect against inhaling grain dust.

Pakes said he always saw workers at the plant take safety inside bins seriously because even a small grain collapse can be fatal.

“It’s almost like mining when you go in to a bin to work on them when it needs to be unstuck,” Pakes said. “You never know when it’s going to move on you. It’s unpredictable. You think you got it under control and it gives way, and you can’t move fast enough.”

An employee involved in the bin accident told police Guell was not wearing harnesses or safety equipment and that United Ethanol did not require use of such gear.

Kim Stille, the OSHA area director, said OSHA is investigating all of the company’s grain handling protocols and employees’ actions during Guell’s fatal accident.

A United Ethanol spokeswoman did not respond to a set of questions from The Gazette seeking the company’s safety record and its protocols for safe grain handling and working in bins and enclosed spaces.

Gregg Swenson, the safety consultant, said grain-handling accidents in which employees are not wearing safety harnesses and retrieval lines are almost always viewed by OSHA as major safety violations.

“If they didn’t (use a harness and retrieval line), they’re probably going to have a bad day when OSHA is done,” Swenson said.

Sometimes fines for such violations are “as low as $5,000,” Swenson said but can climb as high as $75,000 to $100,000 if OSHA finds a company has a history of repeating the same violations.

Swenson said it’s never certain whether OSHA will follow through collecting fines, but in a grain engulfment that ends in an employee’s death, initial fines and citations are “almost certain.”

“They will cite somebody. I’ll say that right now. Even if it was an employee’s fault, they’ll always levy a fine in a fatality. That gives the family recourse in civil court,” Swenson said.

Last updated: 10:39 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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