In a February 16, 2012 letter to Congresswoman Kristi Noem, OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels has provided additional guidance to employers in the grain handling industry regarding the use of sweep augers to remove grain from bins. Sweep augers are common tools used in grain bins to push grain remaining at the bottom of a bin into a discharge sump opening. Typically, sweep augers are electrically powered and rotate in a circular direction around the bottom of the bin at an extremely slow speed. The letter from Assistant Secretary Michaels responds to an inquiry from Congresswoman Noem asking for clarification of earlier Agency pronouncements prohibiting employees from ever entering a grain bin while a bin sweep auger is operating.
In the February 16 letter, OSHA does not back off of its earlier position. However, the Agency does state that "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." This statement may signal that the Agency is moving from a position of a categorical prohibition on employee entry while sweep augers are operating to one which could allow entry so long as certain steps are taken to avoid exposure to any hazard. How such a policy would work in practice and what steps would be permissible is an open question that OSHA does not address in its response to Congresswoman Noem.
The importance of this issue to the grain handling industry cannot be overstated. Sweep augers are ubiquitous in the industry. All grain handling employers should take note of this recent OSHA letter and make any required changes to their operations.