OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards and regulations. Our interpretation letters explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances, but they cannot create additional employer obligations. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. Note that our enforcement guidance may be affected by changes to OSHA rules. Also, from time to time we update our guidance in response to new information. To keep apprised of such developments, you can consult OSHA's website at http://www.osha.gov.
February 16, 2012
The Honorable Kristi Noem
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Representative Noem:
Thank you for your November 7, 2011, letter from you and your colleagues regarding the operation of sweep augers inside grain storage structures. Your letter raised concerns about a letter of interpretation that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sent to Mr. Rick Smithpeter on December 24, 2009. Specifically, you assert that although the letter to Mr. Smithpeter states that an employee cannot work inside a bin while an unguarded sweep auger is operating, OSHA did not offer alternatives for removing grain while an unguarded sweep auger is operating, and the Agency failed to define the term "unguarded sweep auger." Your letter asks for an update on actions the Agency has taken since the December 24, 2009, letter to clarify its position on sweep augers, and requests that OSHA seek input from industry on practical solutions for this issue. Your letter also stated that "... a number of citations have been issued to grain handling facilities for operating 'unguarded' sweep augers."
A sweep auger is a horizontal auger used to push grain remaining at the bottom of a storage bin toward the bin's discharge sump opening. It rotates around the discharge opening to "sweep" the grain toward that opening. Although the screw portion of an auger is often at least partially covered by some type of guard, as you recognize, a guard cannot cover the entire screw assembly portion of a sweep auger, or the auger would not be able to properly function. Therefore, it is accurate to describe a sweep auger (even if it is partially covered by some type of guard) as an "unguarded ... auger."
OSHA's grain handling standard, 29 CFR 1910.272, does not prevent employers from using a sweep auger inside a grain storage bin. Section 1910.272(g)(l)(ii) of the standard provides that, before a worker enters a grain bin, "all mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, and pneumatic equipment which presents a danger" to the workers be "deenergized, and ... disconnected, locked-out and tagged, blocked-off or prevented from operating by other equally effective means." Thus, if an employer can demonstrate that a worker in a grain storage structure is not exposed to hazards presented by the equipment, the standard does not require the equipment to be deenergized before a worker enters the bin. With regard to your statement about the number of citations that have been issued to grain handling facilities for operating "unguarded" sweep augers, these citations were not issued because OSHA objects to the use of these augers. They were issued because grain handling facilities allowed workers to enter grain bins containing energized sweep augers (whether partially guarded or unguarded) and exposed the workers to the dangers posed by those augers.
On May 16, 2011 OSHA issued a memorandum to its Regional Administrators entitled "Clarification of the Applicability of 29 CFR 1910.272(g) or (h) During Grain Storage Structure Entry Operations" (copy enclosed). This memorandum provides guidance on the applicability of requirements in OSHA's grain handling standard, and clarifies that paragraph (g) requirements apply to all entries into grain storage structures except entry into flat storage structures with unrestricted ground level entry "in which there are no toxicity, flammability, oxygen-deficiency or other atmospheric hazards... "
With respect to your recommendation to meet with stakeholders to discuss their concerns about standards addressing sweep augers, I want to assure you that OSHA officials have met with senior staff from the National Grain Feed Association (NGFA) on several occasions. Two of the most recent and notable meetings took place in Washington, D.C. at OSHA's National Office on June 16 and July 19, 2011. Among other things, these meetings included discussions about alternatives to sweep augers for removing grain from a mostly empty storage facility, including methods such as the use of a vacuum system, a sweep auger with higher horse power, or a remotely operated tractor. Also, OSHA field staff have discussed and addressed the concerns of several local/state grain and feed associations regarding sweep augers on numerous occasions. All of these meetings and discussions have been particularly important given the troubling number of 51 worker grain entrapments in 2010 (data from 2010 is the latest available). Sadly, this alarming trend does not seem to have come to an end.
We hope the information we provided in this response addresses your inquiry. Also, for your reference, OSHA responded to an inquiry from Senator Charles E. Grassley who raised concerns similar to those in your letter on May 16, 2011 (copy enclosed). Thank you for your continued interest in occupational safety and health. If we can be of further assistance, please have your staff contact Laura de la Torre in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs at (202) 693-4600.
David Michaels, PhD, MPH
cc: Representatives John Kline, Timothy V. Johnson, Fred Upton, Frank Lucas, Collin Peterson, Larry Bucshon, Dave Camp, John Carter, Rick Crawford, Bob Gibbs, Vicky Hartzler, Tim Huelskamp, Blaine Luetkemeyer, Candice Miller, Denny Rehberg, Todd Rokita, Aaron Schock, Tim Walberg, and Marlin Stutzman