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Grain Elevator Explosion History -- Records of grain elevator explosions have been documented for over 120 years. However, they have probably occurred from the time that structures for handling large amounts of grain were first developed. Five elevator explosions in the United States in December 1977, resulting in 59 deaths and 48 injuries, raised concern in the Federal Government about how to reduce such disasters. This concern led -- as is often the case in issues of national concern that involve science, economics, and technology -- to calling on the National Academy of Sciences for an objective perspective.
National Academy of Sciences -- The Department of Agriculture engaged the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1978 to conduct a symposium on grain elevator explosions. Following this symposium, the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requested the NAS to form the Panel on Causes and Prevention of Grain Elevator Explosions. Its membership was composed of experts in systems analysis, explosion dynamics, investigations and prevention, instrumentation, grain handling and processing, agricultural insurance practices, employee relations, dust control methods, and aerodynamics.
This Panel's work, completed in 1983, resulted in raising awareness in the grain handling industry of the hazards of grain dust as well as providing specific means of reducing those hazards. Based on that awareness and following extensive debate and Congressional hearings, OSHA issued regulations governing grain elevator operations which have resulted in a dramatic reduction in frequency and severity of elevator explosions during the past decade. The results are graphically shown in Section III of Appendix A, page 214.
Analysis of Previous Elevator Explosions -- From 1979 to 1981, the NAS Panel on Causes and Prevention of Grain Elevator Explosions investigated 14 grain elevator explosions in Iowa (1), Kansas (1), Minnesota (4), Missouri (1), Nebraska (4), North Carolina (1), South Dakota (1), and Texas (1). Twelve of the 14 primary explosions were followed by secondary explosions -- which generally caused most of the resulting damage. This on-site analytical work was the first known effort to develop and apply systematic methodology for investigating grain dust explosions.
Prior to this time, most insurance companies and elevator owners only sought to resolve the amount of policy coverage for loss recovery. Though many explosions were spectacular and even killed numerous people, public attention to them was short-lived. By the time causation was determined (if it ever was), it was seldom newsworthy because awareness of the disaster had already passed from public consciousness and concern.
While all 14 elevator explosions were unique in some respects, they had generic commonalties which readily led to universal but practical concepts on their prevention. The results of these investigations were published by the National Academy of Sciences in a series of documents which are listed in the References.
GEEIT (Grain Elevator Explosion Investigation Team) -- Following the DeBruce Grain elevator explosion on 8 June 1998, some members of the earlier NAS Panel on Causes and Prevention of Grain Elevator Explosions were contacted independently by various insurance companies and attorneys as well as OSHA to explore whether they might be willing to voluntarily regenerate the Panel to assist in investigating the DeBruce Grain elevator explosion in Wichita to determine causation as well as propose preventive measures. Two original Panel members were now deceased, but the remaining five members agreed to join together under a new title -- Grain Elevator Explosion Investigation Team or GEEIT. Specialists from Wilfred Baker Engineering in San Antonio were enlisted to replace expertise of the two deceased members.
Sponsorship Rationale -- The solicitation by several parties to engage and underwrite GEEIT expertise for the DeBruce Grain explosion presented a dilemma because those parties had differing -- if not conflicting -- interests in GEEIT findings and conclusions. After due consideration, GEEIT decided to accept OSHA sponsorship and provide its expertise to OSHA in the conviction that the broadest and most meaningful contribution to prevention of future explosions would be possible through OSHA's established regulatory framework. Though regulatory bodies like OSHA cannot prevent explosions -- only those parties who control the situation in which explosions occur can prevent them, GEEIT believes that government agencies provide the vital singular role of representing public interest and serving as the public’s advocate for safe operation. Further, there was conviction that the traditional OSHA regulatory role could be enhanced if GEEIT provided an educational perspective on the disaster that would support future preventive work by OSHA.