grain elevatorAn agricultural cooperative was sentenced last month in federal court in Lincoln, Nebraska after admitting to safety violations that led to the death of an employee.

Farmers Union Cooperative Supply pled guilty to violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The company's actions resulted in the death of Donald Stodola, an employee at Farmers’ Stanton grain-handling facility and elevator.

According to a statement from the Department of Justice, Stodola was found on June 19, 2009 lying at the bottom of the “boot pit” area of the elevator where trucks load and unload grain. Emergency personnel extracted Stodola, who was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy revealed that he had died of asphyxiation.

Air samples of the atmosphere taken within the “boot pit” area revealed reduced oxygen levels and increased carbon dioxide concentration that qualified under OSHA regulations as a “hazardous atmosphere,” or an atmosphere that could expose employees to the risk of death or incapacitation. An investigation by OSHA revealed Farmers knew of the testing requirements for permit-required confined spaces, and had developed a safety program and a written safety manual, pursuant to which Farmers was to identify and evaluate all confined spaces at the Stanton facility to determine whether they were permit-required spaces, and to enact appropriate safety measures. The Information alleged that despite this knowledge, and contrary to the requirements of the OSHA regulations, Farmers failed to test the atmosphere within the “boot pit” area before Mr. Stodola entered the confined space; failed to provide an attendant outside the “boot pit” area while Mr. Stodola went into the space; and failed to provide equipment to assist and facilitate Mr. Stodola’s escape from the “boot pit” in an emergency situation.

The criminal statute violated by Farmers provides that a willful violation of an OSHA regulation which causes the death of an employee is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment up to six months, a fine of up to $500,000.00, or a combination of fine and imprisonment.

United States Magistrate Judge Cheryl R. Zwart imposed a fine of $100,000.00 and placed Farmers’ on probation for two years, during which time Farmers will be required to comply with applicable OSHA regulations, comply with the terms of the Administrative Agreement, and permit OSHA representatives to enter into Farmers’ premises and inspect them.

In June of 2009, OSHA's commenced a fatality investigation of Farmers’ facility in Stanton, Nebraska, and six months later issued citations to Farmers for willful safety violations in its grain bin operations. As part of the settlement agreement, Farmers has also agreed the civil violations will be affirmed, and Farmers will pay an additional civil penalty of $86,700.00 to the United States Department of Labor- OSHA.