Official: United Ethanol to contest OSHA violations in grain silo death

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Neil Johnson
Wednesday, November 6, 2013

MILTON—United Ethanol is contesting safety violations handed down by the federal Office of Safety and Health Administration after an investigation of an employee death in a grain silo at the company's Milton plant.

U.S. Department of Labor spokesman Scott Allen confirmed Wednesday that United Ethanol has filed a notice to contest undisclosed parts of an OSHA finding of 15 grain handling safety violations that OSHA slapped on the company after a six-month investigation of safety practices at the Milton plant, where workers handle grain and produce ethanol.  

OSHA in its findings, which were made available in an Oct. 24 report, handed down $140,000 in potential fines against United Ethanol.

United Ethanol's decision to contest the violations came out of a closed-door “informal conference” between company officials and top officials at OSHA's Madison field office, Allen said. The conference came as United Ethanol had reached a 15-day limit to either settle on the violations or contest them.

Allen said the case and its findings of violations will now go to an administrative law judge, and a final decision and settlement could take months, Allen said.

The Department of Labor and OSHA will not comment now or in the future on the specifics of United Ethanol's decision on the situation because the violations and potential fines are now tied up in litigation, Allen said.

The Gazette could not reach United Ethanol officials for comment Wednesday.

Jarod Guell, 27, a worker at United Ethanol's Milton plant, was killed April 19 after he was suffocated by corn that collapsed while he was trying to free a grain clog in a conveyor area at the bottom of a large storage silo, according to Milton police and fire reports.

OSHA cited violations in Guell's death included lapses in refresher training for grain-handling and a “willful violation” of failing to shut off and lock out conveyors used to empty grain silos while Guell was working inside the silo, according to an OSHA report released Oct. 24.

A “willful violation” is the most serious and is one committed with “intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard … or indifference to employee safety and health,” according to OSHA standards.

Under OSHA rules, grain-handling employees are not allowed to work inside grain silos when there is a risk of a grain collapse.

It's not the first time United Ethanol's been in hot water with OSHA over grain-handling violations. Last year, OSHA cited the company for three “serious” violations at another of the company's grain-handling and grain elevator facilities in Hartford.

The fines included improper practices in grain handling and permit-required confined spaces along with a “fixed ladder” violation.

OSHA initially handed down a $4,250 fine for the ladder violation and a $4,250 fine for the enclosed spaces violation, but the agency later chopped that fine in half and eliminated the ladder fine, according to OSHA records.

United Ethanol had trumpeted in an August company newsletter that it had put in a grain sweep system in each of its grain silos. The company indicated the sweeps will drastically reduce employees having to manually remove grain chute clogs. 

Philip Guell, Jarod Guell's father, told The Gazette in an October interview he thinks the safety measure is a good idea, but it came too late for his son.

“They're shutting the barn door after the horse went down. It'll help people in the future, but it's not going to bring our son back,” Guell said.

On Wednesday, Guell said United Ethanol's choice to contest the OSHA violations leads him to believe the company is more concerned about its bottom line than an employee who lost his life.   

“Money to them is more important that my son's life is to me. That's my impression,” Guell said. “It's going to come down to the company's bottom line against the life of our son. That's what it's going to come down to.”


United Ethanol on Thursday released the following statement on its decision to contest violations handed down by OSHA in the Wake of Jerod Guell's April 19 death:

“United Ethanol has chosen to contest the citations OSHA issued the Company last month because we respectfully disagree with the factual and legal claims the citations make. The citations are simply allegations, and we do not believe they can be proven. We have exercised our right to appeal so that the truth comes out. We believe the truth will show the allegations are unsupported.”

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